Foam Lake Birding No. 33


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 33
Since coming back from the sunny south, I have had the pleasure of feeding a small flock of Redpolls in our backyard. Like other finches, they like niger seed the best. Because niger seed has become expensive, our niger seed is provided in finch feeders only. That means the birds must be able to hang upside down to feed. Unlike other Carduelis finches, Redpolls do not like to hang upside down to feed unless they absolutely have to. Eventually, temptation overcomes their reluctance and they hang upside down and feed.
Our friends, Morris and Jane Karakochuk, have supplied us with lots of canola and canary seed from their farm. For several years now we have hung out feeders with both of those seeds. To our dismay, nothing would touch them! We left the feeders out anyway just in case something eventually developed a taste for canola and/or canary seed. To our delight we found the Redpolls eating both, but preferring the canola. Even so, niger seed is still their preference.
On a very cold and blustery January 13th, as I was sitting at the kitchen table having a coffee, a small flock of birds flew over our house from the west (from “behind”) and plunged into the deep soft snow in our in our neighbour’s yard across the street from us. A quick glance through binoculars confirmed that they were Grey Partridges (Huns). I took some pictures, but only four birds are visible as the other five quickly buried themselves into the snow to get away from the awful weather. After several vehicles drove down the street, the birds seemed to become agitated and suddenly flew away for a quieter place, I presume.
This week’s featured bird, the Common Raven, is a relative newcomer to our area. It is not until the last twenty years or so that the Raven started to appear locally.
P. A. Taverner, a noted Canadian ornithologist, in his 1953 edition of, The Birds of Canada, wrote, “…. yet for some unexplained reason the Crow increases and the Raven disappears when settlement advances.” Now, for some “unexplained reason” the Raven has adjusted to man and, like the Crow, increases with settlement. Personally, that is a good thing. We needed more birds in the winter. Some farmers have reported Ravens tearing up plastic grain storage bags to get to the grain inside. This is not a good thing.
The Common Raven is found throughout the Northern hemisphere. In Canada it can only be confused with the Crow. Refer to Foam Lake birding No. 17 for distinguishing features between it and the Crow.
In the deep south of the US and in Mexico, it can be confused with its crow sized cousin, the Chihuahuan Raven. Fortunately, there is only a little overlap in ranges, so a range map can usually help determine which is which. Where they do overlap, identifying a solitary bird can be a real problem. An observer has to hope for a small gust of wind to ruffle the Raven’s neck feathers and expose the base feathers underneath. If they are black, the bird is a Common Raven; if they are white, the bird is a Chihuahuan Raven. Because of these white base feathers, the Chihuahuan Raven was originally called the White Necked Raven.
This week’s picture was taken in the Grand Canyon in Arizona. A bus load of us were on a guided tour and had stopped for lunch at a picnic site. The Raven sat patiently in a pine tree on the look out for something to eat, and I managed to get a good shot of a very elusive bird.

Foam Lake Birding No. 32


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 32
This week, I will be writing about a new family of birds – the nuthatches. With their black caps and white faces, they look a lot like Chickadees at first glance. However, upon closer examination the differences begin to stand out. Chickadees have black bibs; nuthatches do not. Nuthatches have long chisel-shaped bills; Chickadees have short pointed ones. Once a nuthatch is identified as such, other characteristics are worth noting.
Nuthatches have strong bills and powerful neck muscles allowing them to peck open a hazelnut and eat the meat inside. That being said, they are not capable of pecking out wood to make nests in trees the way woodpeckers do. A very interesting characteristic that distinguishes them from all other birds, except the Black and White Warblers, is their habit of moving down tree trunks head first. Nobody is quite sure why this behavior evolved; but one explanation is that can see prey from the top looking down. Thus they can spot prey missed by other tree clinging birds, such as woodpeckers, that see their prey from the bottom up. Whatever the reason, it certainly is interesting to watch them feed.
There are three different species of nuthatches in Canada. Two of them, the White Breasted and the Red Breasted, are common here; the third one, the Pygmy Nuthatch, is found only in British Columbia in the southern Okanagan Valley.
The males and females of both the Red and White Breasted are very similar with the males being a little more colourful. The sexes of the Pygmy are alike. This anomaly is quite puzzling as all three nuthatches are closely related. Nothing is neat and tidy in the bird’s world.
Nuthatches are permanent residents that, for the same reasons as many other permanent residents, are seldom seen in the summer – especially in towns. In winter, they will readily come to feeders eating the same food stuffs as Chickadees do. They are very quick moving agile birds that seem to be constantly in motion. When feeding they behave much as Chickadees do, except they fly farther away to eat the seed. Like Chickadees, they can be quite confiding.
Quite often, nuthatches can be identified before they are seen. Both make similar hoarse tooting sounds resembling those made on a child’s tin horn. Some people hear the sound as a little grunt; others hear it as a small quack. The White Breasted sounds more like the former; the Red Breasted sounds more like the latter. Once heard, the sound is easy to remember.
The name, nuthatch, has at times evoked a little measure of humour. One does tend to imagine an addled little bird sitting on a nest full of acorns trying to hatch them! Actually, the origins of the name go back to the time when Britain started to colonize the Americas. Early colonist noticed that the bird would pick up a nut; fly to a convenient perch; and, then proceed to peck at the nut until the shell gave way exposing the meat. The colonists named the bird a Nut Hack, because of the way it hacked at the nut with its bill. With the English language being what it is, the name, Nut Hack, was slowly corrupted to the present name, Nuthatch.
This week’s photo is of our largest nuthatch – the sparrow-sized, White Breasted Nuthatch. The picture was taken in Winnipeg and shows the bird in classic nuthatch pose – moving downward with the head pointed out parallel to the ground. As you watch for the White Breasted Nuthatch, be prepared to see the Red Breasted. It, too, is very common, especially at feeders.

Foam Lake Birding No. 31


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 31
One thing about being on the coast is that one is inundated with a wide variety of water loving birds – especially gulls. Overall, their numbers are not that great because large quantities of food are simply not available to them nearby. Local ordinances and state and federal laws prohibit dumping of refuse on beaches, thus keeping populations under control However, with heavy human use of beaches, there are always some accidentally dropped or discarded tidbits from picnic lunches and so on. In addition, there is always something dead or dying washing up on shore. When the tides recede, sea life such as clams, crabs, starfish and worms top off the menu. Whatever the food source, gulls, which are not discriminating eaters, do a very thorough job of keeping the beaches clean. Their feeding habits provide a sanitation service far beyond what man could hope to do.
Some gulls can be found both on sea coasts and fresh water lakes; some only on fresh water; the majority only along sea coasts. Today’s featured bird, the Western Gull, belongs to the latter group.
The Western Gull is very similar to many other white headed gulls. Distinctions among the various species are quite subtle. They all have white heads and undersides, and dark wings and back. All, more or less, sound the same. Different species do vary quite considerably in size, but unless they are in mixed flocks this is of little use. An observer has to focus on the colours and markings of the eyes, bills, feet, backs and wings. Only when all field marks fall into place can a positive identification be made.
Above all else, a serious birder should acquire a current bird book with accurate colour pictures and range maps. Poor colour rendition, especially in older bird books, often results in birds being misidentified. Range maps are very helpful, but often under utilized. Through the process of elimination, a birder can use range maps to zero in only on birds that exist in that particular area. For example, the Greater Black Backed Gull is found only on the east coast; whereas the very similar Western Gull is found only on the west coast from southern British Columbia to northern Mexico. A birder in Halifax, upon seeing a white gull with very dark wings and back, would be quite confident that the bird in question is a Greater Black Backed; similarly, with the Western in Victoria. In neither case would one have to differentiate between the two because they do not coexist in the same area.
As mentioned in a previous article, any bird seen far outside its normal range must be identified with great caution and corroborated by credible witnesses. Good quality photographs are a great help, but are not considered proof. For example, it is impossible to determine with any reasonable certainty that the gulls in this week’s picture are Western Gulls. With poor quality photographs, the task becomes almost impossible. Only when the location is known can the birds be safely identified.
This week’s photo was taken in Oceanside, California. In typical gull fashion, the two are sitting on a street light surveying the area and watching for somebody to discard something to eat. It certainly does remind one of gulls sitting on light poles at fast food restaurants back home.

Foam Lake Birding No. 30




FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 30
In the world of birds, the greatest numbers of families exist in a quite diverse group called “perching birds” or “passerines”. It is a literal hodge podge of species ranging from the chicken-sized Raven to the hummingbird-sized kinglets. All have similar body anatomy; all have similar feather structure and arrangement; in addition to calls, all can sing, although some do sing better than others; all are able to perch on trees, wires, posts, reeds and so on. The group gets its name from the last characteristic; however, some birders do call them “song birds’ after the previous one.
The passerines are comprised of twenty one families – sometimes more when ornithologists change their minds. This week’s family is known for its behavior of sitting quietly on a perch, then darting out to catch a flying insect. From their feeding habits they are called, what else, but flycatchers.
Flycatchers, in turn, are somewhat arbitrarily divided into two smaller groups. One group is made up of small (sparrow-sized) plain birds with white wing bars and white eye rings; members of the other group are larger, though variable, without both wing bas and eye rings. Most flycatchers in both groups are predominantly greenish brown birds with whitish undersides. The former group is called Empidonax Flycatchers, (with more on that in a future column). The birds in the latter group go under a series of four arbitrary names with no special characteristics assigned to any of them. Alphabetically, they are: flycatchers, kingbirds, phoebes and wood pewees.
One of these four is the subject of this week’s column. The sparrow-sized phoebes are represented by two species found in Saskatchewan – the Eastern and Say’s. The Eastern is a bird of the more humid plains and woodlands; the Say’s is a bird of the drier plains, deserts and mountains. One has to keep in mind that both species can be found coexisting in west central Saskatchewan.
What physically separate the two species are the differences in colouration. The Eastern is greenish brown with a whitish breast and belly; the Say’s has a browner back but a rusty red belly. Some birders have described it as a dull little Robin. It really is quite easy to identify.
We tend to be more familiar with the Eastern because it is the only one around Foam Lake, and because of its tendency to nest inside buildings. The Say’s likes to be a little more distant from man and prefers to nest in abandoned ranch buildings. Both like to build their nests under bridges giving rise to their sometimes being called “bridge pewees”.
This week’s photos of Say’s Phoebes was taken in the desert mountains of southern Arizona and in the Batiquitos Lagoon in California. The first was perched on the tip of a dead Saguaro Cactus; the second was sitting on a snag looking for flying insects in what can only be described as a classic flycatcher pose.
To see the Say’s Phoebe in Saskatchewan, one has to travel south of a line running from Lloydminster to Weyburn. If anybody is traveling in that area for business or pleasure, be on the lookout for it. It is quite common there.

Foam Lake Birding No. 29


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 29
Because of its geography, North America is a land mass that has an east-west bias. The continent is a massive plain flanked by the Appalachian Mountains in the east, the Rockies in the west, and capped by the Boreal Forest in the North. Except for southern California, both coasts receive abundant rainfall, and as a result are heavily forested. Evergreens are predominant in the west; hardwoods in the east. Due to several factors, the plains are wetter to the east and north (prairie), and drier to the south and west (desert). With the exception of the Arctic north of the Boreal Forest, this generally describes the continent of North America.
These differences in geography have created other differences as well. Socially, just about everybody is familiar with the economic and political differences that exist between the east and the west in Canada. In addition, many of our sporting activities are based on east-west competition – especially the CFL. As it is with human activity, so it is with wildlife.
For example, hummingbirds are very east-west oriented. Except for some isolated spots and a few strays, no hummingbirds can be found on the plains. (We, in Foam Lake, are in the park belt zone and not the plains). One species, the Ruby Throated Hummingbird, is found throughout the east and southern edge of the Boreal Forest extending almost to the Rockies. This is the one found in Saskatchewan. Over a dozen species occur, mostly in the drier mountainous regions, in the west. Four of them can be found in the mountains and adjacent areas of Alberta and British Columbia.
Many hummingbirds are highly migratory, but a few are permanent residents. One such species, Anna’s Hummingbird, is found from southern British Columbia to Northern Mexico. At a glance, it looks pretty much like any other hummingbird, but close observation quickly brings out its distinctions. Its unique feature is that its throat and entire front and sides of the head are a pinkish red; other hummingbirds show their red colouration, if any, on the throat alone. The female also shows red on the throat though much less than the male. The red on the female’s throat is a feature unique to the Anna’s Hummingbird. In North America, no other female hummingbird has even a trace of red on its throat. When perched, Anna’s Hummingbirds have a big-headed appearance.
This week’s picture was taken at a feeder south of Tucson in Arizona in the spring. The bird is in its finest spring plumage. To those travelers who visit or holiday in British Columbia, especially the Okanagan, be on the lookout for the other hummers as well. Three common ones are: the Black Chinned, Calliope and Rufous. They are there. One just has to be prepared by knowing what to expect. Studying a good bird book, in advance, for specific birds is invaluable.

Foam Lake Birding No. 28




FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 28
This year we will be spending the month of December in California with our oldest daughter and her family. To wit, I have spent quite some time trying to determine how I would treat these articles during this time. I came to the decision to write about birds that are common in southern California, but not exclusively so. So, for this week’s column and the next three, I hope you enjoy the articles, even though the birds discussed are not found locally around Foam Lake. However, I will try to include some material that is pertinent and of interest to Foam Lake area birders.
To date I have not written about hawks, local or otherwise, simply because I do not have any good pictures – yet. Now, being in California, I do have some good pictures of “local” hawks that I can write about. This week’s photo was a long distance shot taken in 2007, at the Batiquitos Lagoon, located on the outskirts of the city of Carlsbad. On our walks along the lagoon, we always passed right underneath the grove of trees where they nested. The birds did not seem to mind.
The quite large and varied hawk group is broken down into a series of smaller groups (families) that share common characteristics not shared by the larger group as a whole. Listed alphabetically, the different families are: Accipiters (bird hawks), Buteos (buzzard hawks), Eagles, Falcons, Harriers and Kites. My intention is to write in detail about each family when I feature a specific bird from that particular family.
Of the six families listed, only the kites are not represented in Foam Lake. So, it seems somewhat ironic that of all families, I will be writing about the group that is not represented in the Foam Lake area – the kites.
Kites are the most buoyant and graceful fliers of all hawks. With gentle wing motions, they appear to float effortlessly for hours on end. Their method of hunting is to find a desirable site and then fly into a headwind of sufficient speed to allow them to “hang” in the air on largely motionless wings. Any wing beats are minimal with just enough motion to maintain position above the ground. One gets the impression that the suspended bird is tethered to the ground. This style of flying is called “kiting”. When prey is spotted the kite dives down and catches it.
Most people believe that the birds are named after those contraptions (kites) that children like to fly in parks and school grounds on windy days. ‘What really happened is that when man-made “kites’ were introduced to the Europeans by the Chinese, they reminded the Europeans of a familiar bird, the kite, in flight. The man-made flying objects, (“kites”), were named after the bird, and not the other way around.
Today’s featured bird is the crow-sized White Tailed Kite (formerly the Black Shouldered Kite). When perched it appears as a white bird with black wings and large black eyes. When flying it looks a lot like a seagull. Males and females are alike. Whether perched or flying, when viewed through binoculars, it is a beautiful and graceful bird.

Foam Lake Birding No. 27


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 27
As I alluded to in the article on Chickadees, some of our permanent resident birds are more or less absent for the summer. It is not that they have migrated somewhere; rather, their nesting requirements dictated that they leave town for the breeding season. Woodpeckers, for example, need relatively large, dead or dying, trees in which to chisel out nests; and from which to extract worms and grubs to feed themselves and their young. Urban areas just do not have such trees available. Once the young have fledged, these “summer absentees” can be seen foraging on trees and visiting feeders in town.
One of these summer absentees is the Hairy Woodpecker. It gets its name from its white back feathers which vaguely resemble hair – a feature not noticeable in the field.
It is a striking black and white bird that has a clean cut appearance about it. The males and females are identical save for a small double red patch on the back of the male’s head. The double red patch lies horizontally across the back of the woodpecker’s head, and can only be seen when viewed directly from behind. When seen in profile, it appears as a single red square spot. One could compare them to human eyebrows. From the side they appear as only one; straight on there are two separated by bare skin above the nose. Occasionally, they merge into one “long” eyebrow with no separation above the nose. Sometimes, the Hairy’s spots also merge into one long stripe with no separation at the back of the head.
As striking as they are, they are often overlooked because of their habit of clinging motionlessly to trunks of trees. The bird in this week’s photo sat motionless in that position for a good half hour! It certainly made for some leisurely photography. However, they usually give themselves away by calling out sharply, almost as if they wanted to attract attention to themselves.
Like so many other birds, the Hairy Woodpecker has a “twin” as it were – the Downy Woodpecker. Except for some subtle size differences the two are almost identical. So, how does one tell them apart? The word, carefully, comes to mind. First, if the two are together, which often happens at feeders, size is diagnostic. The Hairy is robin-sized; the Downy is sparrow-sized (a large sparrow). Hairy Woodpeckers can vary considerably in size. A small Hairy will be only a little larger than a large Downey; a large Hairy can approach a Flicker in size. Second, when isolated, bill size is probably the most reliable and best distinguishing field mark. For a Hairy, the length of the bill from its base to its tip is about the same as the distance from the base of the bill to the back of the head. For a Downy, the length of the bill is about half the distance to the back of the head. With a little practice, it becomes easy to use this feature to tell them apart. This field mark always separates a Hairy from a Downy. Third, their calls, though similar, are different enough to serve as a good distinguishing characteristic also. The hairy makes a high pitched, sharp peek; the Downy makes a lower pitched and more subdued pick
Both woodpeckers will readily come to feeders if provided with suet or peanuts. The Hairy also eats fruit, but to get a fruit eater to a feeder is difficult. As of this writing, we have had a Hairy at our feeders, now we are waiting for its “twin”.

Foam Lake Birding No. 26




FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 26
There are many times when I have a lot of trouble deciding which bird to write about. As an underlying principle, I try to feature a bird that is here in season so that people, who are interested in birds, can literally go out and identify them after reading one of my articles. Because there are so many different birds around, the decision is not as easy as it might seem. On the other hand, sometimes a birding event occurs that makes my decision for me almost instantly. This week’s featured bird is one such example.
On October 20th my wife and I were having morning coffee and watching the birds at our feeders, when suddenly they all took off in one large flock leaving the backyard completely deserted. For a moment we did not know what had frightened them, but then we “saw” our answer. A shrike had landed in our ash tree and was observing the proceedings in our backyard. It sat quietly for a few moments and then flew off. Even though nothing exciting happened this time, I “had” my bird - the Northern Shrike.
Worldwide there are 74 shrikes, but only three in North America, one of which is a very rare vagrant from Asia. Locally, there are two shrikes – the Northern and Loggerhead. The former, as its name suggests, is a northern bird that is a winter resident only; the latter is a summer resident that migrates to the southern USA and Mexico for the winter. The two are almost identical in every way and only an experienced birder can tell them apart in the field. However, there is no need to become frustrated. Around here, they occur only in their respective seasons and are never together in any seasonal overlap.
Whereas the Loggerhead has been decreasing (dramatically in the East), the Northern appears to be more common. In all my years of observing birds, I had never seen a Northern Shrike until the last ten years or so. Now, I see them almost every winter, usually sitting in a tree surveying the area for prey.
The Northern Shrike is a Robin-sized bird that kills and eats prey far larger than one would expect for a bird its size. Its menu includes large insects, mice and its favourite – small birds. By sitting motionless, quietly and partially concealed, it launches a surprise attack on unsuspecting birds. The birds scatter, but the shrike picks out one and chases it. It quickly catches up to the fleeing bird forcing it down to the ground or to a branch where it pecks it to death with its powerful beak. The victim is then impaled on a thorn or barbed wire to be eaten later.
I happened to witness this event in our backyard on December 17, 2006. The photo shows the victim, a Common Redpoll, lying in a heap on the snow with its beak pointing upward to the right and the Northern Shrike perched above it. Originally, the Redpoll was impaled just to the right of the Shrike, but it fell off. I have photos of the impaled Redpoll also, but the Shrike’s head was covered by a branch. By the time I had moved to get a better shot, the Redpoll had fallen off. I decided to print the later shot as it clearly shows the white shrike with black wings and eye mask.
I feel privileged to have witnessed such an event; which, though common, is rarely seen by man. To some it might seem gruesome, but in nature there are no such values. The Northern Shrike was doing only what it was designed to do. To fully appreciate “Mother Nature” one has to accept her on her own terms – warts and all.

Foam Lake Birding No. 24


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 24
In previous articles, I have mentioned that some of our birds (and plants and animals for that matter) are foreign species that have been introduced. Why? There were a variety of reasons and here are four of them. One, our pioneers were homesick and wanted birds around that were familiar to them; two, some were introduced in the belief that they would control (eat) agricultural pests; three, some were pets that escaped and established themselves in the wild; four, certain groups of birds, especially those in the chicken family, were brought in to augment our native game birds. This week’s featured bird is in the last category.
Here, one has to keep in mind that about a hundred years ago, when most game birds were introduced, many people hunted wild birds and animals for food in much the same way in which we still harvest wild fish. As the human population increased, wild game was simply not able to sustain its numbers due to hunting pressure. The extinct Passenger Pigeon is a sad example of that. Luckily, agriculture was expanding at the same time that governments were starting to restrict the taking of wild game, and as a result, meat from domestic stock easily replaced meat from wild game. Present day sport hunting is a living remnant of that era. Currently, for reasons right or wrong (and with a lot of controversy), the fishing industry is evolving along the same course.
Quite often Europeans simply felt that Old World wildlife was superior to that found in the New World, and as a result, many species were introduced with little forethought – sometimes with devastating consequences. Fortunately, most introduced species were not able to adapt and perished. This week’s featured bird, the Crow-sized Grey Partridge, is one of the survivors that was introduced about a century ago as a ‘preferred” game bird. The fact that North America already had several native game birds seems to have been lost on these people. Even though the Grey Partridge has probably displaced some of our native game birds to a limited extent, we might as well enjoy it. It is here to stay.
The Grey Partridge was never introduced into Saskatchewan. Our population originates from birds introduced into Alberta that have expanded naturally into our area. Even though their populations have plummeted in Europe, they are still quite common in Canada. Therefore, they are considered game birds in Saskatchewan and can be hunted legally during hunting season.
In Britain, Grey Partridges are known as English Partridges; in continental Europe, they are known as Hungarian Partridges; in North America, they are usually referred to as “Huns”. Except for ornithologists and some birders, almost nobody calls them Grey Partridges – their official name! When one sees the bird, its name does appear to be a bit of a misnomer. They are not all that grey; rather, they are covered with reddish brown stripes on a grey body. The face is a distinctive orange. Males and females, though not identical, are very similar with the male, sporting a distinctive black belly patch. When flushed, they flash a lot of rich brown colour on the underside of their wings, and especially their tails, which is quite noticeable and diagnostic.
Fall is the best time to observe them as they are gathered in family groups for the winter. In spring they break up into breeding pairs. A good place to look for them is along fields and roads that are near trees. The trees provide cover and the open spaces provide a source of food in the form of spilled grain and their favorite – green grass for browsing. It is believed that Huns need exposed green grass in the dead of winter if they are to survive. Heavy snowfalls, without clearing winds, cause very high rates of mortality due to starvation. This week’s photo shows three Huns grazing on a lawn in a residential area in Calgary. There actually are six, but three were hidden behind the electrical box. It appears they are adapting quite well to man. After all, the lawns are a handy and plentiful source of food.
To get a good look at a Grey Partridge one needs to use binoculars. Even though Huns are quite common, their whereabouts on any given day are highly unpredictable. Patience is a requisite that can pay dividends to the persistent birder.

Foam Lake Birding No. 23


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 23
We are now in what can best be described as the “doldrums of birding”. Pretty well all of the summer residents and the transients have flown south, but the winter residents have not yet arrived. What we are left with are the year round (permanent) residents. Permanent residents tend to go unnoticed, especially in the summer; but in the late fall (middle of October to the end of November) they are really appreciated as they are the only “game in town” as it were. There actually are a surprising number of permanent residents in our area.
One such resident, this week’s featured bird, really needs no introduction. The friendly and confiding Black Capped Chickadee is well known to just about everybody. I am sure that in the winter every backyard in town has a Chickadee or two visit it every single day. It has three distinct calls. First, when foraging, it often utters a two note tee dee. Second, in spring it makes a two part whistle with the second part being shorter and lower. It has been translated as “spring’s here”. Third, its most common call is a clear chicka-dee-dee. In fact, it gets its name from this last call.
Black Capped Chickadees belong to a group of birds that are common throughout the Northern Hemisphere. In North America, the ones with crests are called titmice and the ones without crests are called chickadees; in Europe, they are all called tits. For example, there is one Eurasian member of the family that crossed the Bering Sea and now nests in parts of Alaska and the Yukon as well as the Old World. In Europe it is called The Siberian Tit; in North America, it is called the Grey Headed Chickadee (formerly the Siberian Chickadee). Why? Our North American sensibilities find the European word “inappropriate”! Therefore, Chickadees it is. In North America, there are about a dozen members in the family, but it is hard to put a number on it exactly because ornithologists keep changing their minds as to whether some are merely races or full species.
In Canada, there are five species of chickadees and one titmouse. Locally, there are no titmice, but there are two chickadees – one very common and one very uncommon. Even though the chickadees in Canada can be easily differentiated, they are very similar in colour, behavior, vocalizations and physique. In general appearance, all chickadees are “big headed” sparrow sized birds with black caps and white faces; all have similar calls; all are very acrobatic and often hang upside down when feeding; all are omnivorous eating insects, suet, peanut butter, seeds and more. This flexibility in diet allows them to survive very harsh winters.
When several chickadees come to a feeder, they follow a strict pecking order as to who gets to the food first. First, one comes and picks up a seed and flies away to eat it; then, a second does the same; then, the third and so on. As soon as the first one finishes it comes back to the feeder and goes to the “front of the line”. Once again, the rest wait their turn. Because the sexes are identical it is impossible to determine who the “boss” is. With patience they can be coaxed to eat out of one’s hand. It would be worth a try.
As mentioned earlier, all chickadees appear to have dark caps, white faces and make similar vocalizations. Two winters ago, (2006-2007), there were three Boreal Chickadees in town. Several people, including ourselves, had them at our feeders daily all winter. The casual observer would not have noticed the difference between these rare visitors from the north and our Black Capped version. What are the differences? The Boreal Chickadees have dark brown caps and brownish sides and backs. I was fortunate enough to get several good photos of the Boreals. Because the Black Capped is usually the only one found here, I refer to it simply as the Chickadee.
Chickadees nest in the damaged areas of larger trees that have broken down because of old age or high winds. I suppose it could be described as an “almost” birdhouse. Rarely, they will nest in old woodpecker holes or even birdhouses, but it would be a waste of time trying to entice them to nest in a birdhouse. Watching a family of Chickadees feeding is a memorable event. The juveniles, stubby-tailed grey balls of hyperactive fluff, are especially cute. To witness such an event, one has to take to the deeper woods, because Chickadees nest away from the proximity of man. However, at this time of year the young have matured and come to our yards as adults.
So on a very cold, and often depressing, winter day, a few energetic and cheerful Chickadees can pick up one’s spirits. They never disappoint as depressed Chickadees are unknown.

Foam Lake Birding No. 22


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 22
Even though fall brings a certain feeling of sadness because of the imminent arrival of winter, it is a good time for birding. This is the time of year to observe birds that nest in the high Arctic in the summer, such as the White Crowned Sparrow, and spend several weeks here before continuing on farther south. One such group of birds is the sandpipers. Sandpipers are relatively small, long legged and long billed wading birds that spend most of their time feeding along the edges of standing bodies of water. There are a number of species that occur locally, at one time or another, during the year.
One of these sandpipers, the Greater Yellowlegs, is this week’s featured bird. Although it migrates through here in the spring, its stopover is quite short. In addition, there are quite a few other sandpipers in the spring, and as a result, Yellowlegs are easily overlooked. In the fall when most waders stop over at larger bodies of water or fly directly to their wintering grounds, the few that do remain are relatively easy to identify. The Yellowlegs is one such species.
The Yellowlegs are easily separated from other small brown wading birds by two distinguishing characteristics. First, the Yellowlegs have yellow legs (naturally). A word of caution is needed here. When feeding in mud, the legs get dirty and may appear dark. (The picture of the Junco in the 19th article showed dark legs even though it was stated that they are pink. The Junco had been feeding on the ground after a rain.) Second, when the Yellowlegs take flight, the tail, though slightly barred, appears to be pure white. The back and wings are grayish brown; the breast and belly are whitish; the head and neck are brownish grey. Like some other sandpipers, they teeter from time to time when standing. Males and females are the same.
Again, to make things more complicated, there are two Yellowlegs – the Greater and Lesser. Other than size, these two slender waders are pretty well identical. There are differences, but they are so subtle that only an experienced birder can use them for identification. The Greater is Robin-sized; the Lesser is the size of a large sparrow. In mixed flocks, which occur commonly, they can be easily separated; in separate flocks it is much more difficult. Thankfully, there actually is one easy way to tell them apart – their vocalizations. When flushed, both birds usually make clear and repeated distress calls. The Greater makes a forceful, shrill and rapid three note dill, dill, dill; the Lesser makes a one or two note more subdued yew, yew. It should be pointed out that applying English words to describe a bird’s sound is somewhat subjective. Different people hear different things. For example, what sounds like dill, dill, dill to one person can sound like dear, dear, dear to another! For many years, ornithologists have tried to eliminate this problem in a variety of ways, some of which (such as musical notes and sonograms), only a music teacher could appreciate. In the end, we reverted back to what we had. It has problems, but it is the best system to date.
Yellowlegs occur in small flocks, perhaps family groups that prefer shallow water. As a result, they can be seen almost anywhere there is some water with muddy shore lines – the muddier the better. The birds shown in this article were feeding in Milligan Creek. The photo was taken off the concrete bridge on highway 310 just west of town.

Foam Lake Birding No. 21


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 21
Locally, most of our warblers have flown south to the tropics for the winter. There, on their wintering grounds, they will molt into their bright spring plumages; which, in turn, will make identification much easier when they return in the spring. A few do, however, spend their winters as far north as the southern USA, and one even winters on the west coast as far north as the state of Washington.
This week’s featured bird, the Yellow-Rumped Warbler, is this most northerly migrant. It gets its name from (you guessed it) its bright yellow rump (upper tail coverts) that is usually visible to the naked eye. Until fairly recently, the Yellow-Rump was divided into two species: the Audubon’s Warbler of the Rocky Mountains to the west coast, and the Myrtle Warbler east and north of the Rockies. Where their ranges overlap, they hybridize freely. For this reason, the two were considered races and were lumped together into one species – the Yellow-Rumped Warbler. As readers may recall, exactly the same thing has happened to some other birds also. It is quite likely that they may be restored to two species. Once again, only time will tell. The local race of the Yellow-Rumped Warbler is the Myrtle Warbler, and will be referred to as such.
In spring the males, and even the females, are unmistakable. Check with your bird books for colour details. The bright yellow rump patch is clearly visible, especially when the bird has its back turned to the observer as it flits through the trees. Usually, the yellow rump patch is diagnostic, but one has to be a little cautious. Another bird, the Magnolia Warbler, also has a yellow rump patch and that can cause some confusion. The big difference is that the Magnolias have bright yellow breasts and bellies while the Myrtles are white. Keeping these differences in mind makes identification quite easy. Another thing to keep in mind is that Magnolias are highly migratory and fly south much earlier, thus are seldom seen together with the Myrtles in the fall.
In North America, the Yellow-Rumped Warbler is unique among warblers in two ways. One, as already mentioned, it winters extremely far north for a warbler; two, it is one, of only a few, warbler known to eat fruit. This flexibility in diet allows it to survive in harsher climates (farther north) where insects may not be readily available. It is also the reason why it hangs around so late in the fall when other warblers have been long gone. Around here, it will commonly stay until after the Thanksgiving weekend.
I had taken a nice picture of a Myrtle in fall plumage in our back yard; but as luck would have it, I accidentally deleted it! Just as some minor panic was starting to set in, I recalled having taken some good pictures of the Audubon’s this March on its wintering grounds in Arizona. Therefore, this week’s photo is of a male Audubon’s in full spring plumage. Keep in mind that both races can be seen in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
In summary, a drab, brownish grey striped bird with a bright yellow rump is almost certainly the Myrtle. The overall impression is that of a small sparrow with a yellow rump. It has been quite common in our yard this fall. See if you can identify it.

Foam Lake Birding No. 20


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 20
One of our most common and numerous water birds is the American Coot. Once again, the word, American, is added to the name to separate it from a very similar and closely related European species. Because it is the only coot in Canada, it will be referred to simply as the Coot. It is also known by a variety of nicknames; one of which, used locally, is the Mud Hen.
In Saskatchewan, Coots are summer residents only. Presently, they are congregating in flocks on larger sloughs in preparation for fall migration. However, they are not highly migratory flying south only as far as the nearest ice-free water. As a result, they tend to hang around moderately late into the fall until the sloughs start to freeze – about the Thanksgiving Weekend. On their wintering grounds, they tend to remain in rather large flocks (rafts) on coastal bays as well as bodies of fresh water. In much of the USA, the Coot is a year round resident.
The Coot is a dark grey, almost black (slate), bird of marshes and sloughs. It is almost exactly the same colour as the Slate-colored race of the Dark Eyed Junco. With its pure white bill contrasting sharply with its slate body, it is quite easy to identify, even with the naked eye. Males and females are the same. Another notable feature is its swimming style; it moves its head back and forth much like a walking horse or, as previously mentioned, a Brewer’s Blackbird. No other duck-sized marsh bird does this. Even though it is very duck-like in its behavior (it even has partially webbed feet), it is related to cranes and not ducks or geese at all! It could be described as a little crane that likes to swim. Like a crane, it likes to leave the water and graze on shore. Unlike a crane, a Coot seldom, if ever, flies out to graze; rather, it walks to its grazing grounds. We do not see this activity locally because the young are reared solely on the water and the parents have to stay close; on their wintering grounds, with no youngsters to take care of, Coots will wander quite some distance inland. In some areas in the southern USA, they have become a bit of a nuisance on golf courses. This week’s picture was taken on salt water off South Padre Island in Texas.
Both, the males and females, share “household” duties. The mated pair builds a floating nest made of reeds and rushes that is anchored in place by attaching it to some bulrushes. Quite often, these nests will survive the winter and provide nesting platforms for other marsh birds, such as the Black Tern, the following spring. Both parents take care of the young that, like ducks or geese, take to the water within hours of hatching. Coots are very territorial and pugnacious, and it is a common sight to see one male chasing a rival out of his territory.
In Saskatchewan, the Coot is considered a game bird, and as such, can be legally hunted during hunting season. However, it is in no danger of being over-hunted as it is not considered to be a desirable game bird by sportsmen for several reasons. First, it is not the best tasting of wild game. Having tried it myself, I would rank it below that of a Shoveler. Second, most game bird hunters like to shoot a bird in flight. Not only does this practice provide a challenge to the hunter, but it gives the game bird a good chance of getting away. Unless frightened, Coots very seldom fly during the day, because unlike ducks, they do not fly anywhere to feed. Rather, they stay put in one slough for the summer diving from the surface of the water to catch small water creatures underwater, and walking short distances on land to graze. In other words, all the necessities of life are at hand, thus eliminating the need to go somewhere else. Once a Coot does decide to fly, it must patter along the surface of the water for some distance in order to reach flight speed – much like a modern airplane. Why? It is too heavy for the size of its wings to “jump” out of the water the way a duck does.
In the summer almost any marshy slough will harbour a family of Coots. On summer evenings (and nights), their distinctive “crrrucking” sounds carry a long way, and can be heard within the town itself. In the fall, they are much quieter, but can be readily observed in sloughs along highways. It makes for easy birding.

Foam Lake Birding No. 19








FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 19
It is that time of year again when the transient birds have returned to our yards. For example, the White Throated Sparrow is back. Because there are so many juveniles from this year’s hatch, identifying some of these transients can be quite difficult. To make things easier, I decided to write about a very common and easily identifiable bird – the Dark Eyed Junco.
Juncos belong to the sparrow family, and as such, are seed eaters. They differ from most sparrows in that they do not scratch for seeds, rather, they simply pick up what they see on the ground. Furthermore, males and females are not identical. Although similar to the males, the females are a shade duller and are quite easy to spot. A good place to observe Juncos is under a feeder where they pick seeds that have fallen to the ground.
Where the name, junco, comes from is not certain, but it is an easy one to remember. There are two species of juncos in North America – the Dark Eyed and Yellow Eyed. The latter (the first picture) occurs at higher altitudes in the mountains of Mexico, Arizona and New Mexico where snow falls in the winter. I have often wondered why they just do not fly further north where the snow will come to them at lower altitudes. Such is the way of birds. The Dark Eyed occurs across North America and coexists with the Yellow Eyed in the southern USA and northern Mexico.
Until recently, the Dark Eyed Junco was divided into five different species that are now considered to only be five races (forms or subspecies). Like the Canada Goose, all five races have their own names: Gray-headed, Oregon, Pink-sided, Slate-colored, and White-winged. Each race is distinctly coloured and lives in a specific, but overlapping range. Where their ranges overlap, they hybridize (cross breed) freely. The Gray-headed race and the Yellow Eyed are almost identical, except of course, for the eyes. In mixed flocks (a common occurrence) identification is a bit of a challenge. The Yellow Eyed and Dark Eyed do not hybridize.
Two races of the Dark Eyed occur in Saskatchewan: the Pink-sided that breeds in the Cypress Hills, and the Slate-colored that nests in the Boreal Forest, but is transient here. A verbal description of each race would be long and confusing; therefore, reference to a birdbook is a must. One should also keep in mind that, occasionally, some birds will show up showing colours of races that do not normally occur here. Our local variety is the Slate-colored race. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to our bird simply as the Junco. It is a dark grey, almost black (slate), bird with a white belly. The beak and legs are pink. On the ground, it hops. It is probably easiest to identify when it takes off in flight and flares its tail. The white outer tail feathers are clearly visible with the naked eye. There is another bird that also flashes white outer tail feathers in flight – the Vesper Sparrow. However, the Junco is almost black while the sparrow is brown striped with white. Also, the Junco readily comes into our yards; the Vesper Sparrow does not. In short, if one sees a very dark grey (slate) sparrow- sized bird with clearly visible white outer tail feathers, it is most certainly a Junco.
Today, the word, slate, is seldom used to describe the colour of anything. Rather, we use phrases like “dark grey” or “almost black”. The colour, slate, is named after a kind of rock that is easily split and was widely used as roofing shingles in Britain and elsewhere. The colour of the rock was “dark grey” or “nearly black” of course!
Juncos will stay around until hard frosts come, then, they fly south. They are not very migratory spending the winter as nearby as southern Saskatchewan! Some stragglers will even spend the winter here. In any case, should one not see them now, they will show up in the spring just as the snow starts to melt for the summer. Their arrival in late March and early April is a sure sign of spring, just as their arrival in the middle of September is a sure sign of fall.

Foam Lake Birding No. 18




FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 18
Since the beginning of August, some Foam Lake residents have probably noticed Robin-sized brown birds on their lawns searching for something to eat. When the birds are scared up they flash a lot of yellow under their wings. These seemingly late arrivals are called Northern Flickers. They are actually present all summer, but are more numerous and, therefore, more noticeable after the young have fledged. For reasons previously stated, they shall be referred to simply as Flickers.
Flickers belong to a group of birds called woodpeckers that share one common characteristic – they all bore holes in dead and dying trees to make their nests. Nests are used only once, then become available to other cavity dwelling birds in future years. For some birds, their very existence depends on the availability of abandoned woodpecker holes. For these reasons, woodpeckers are sometimes referred to as carpenter birds. In fact, in Spanish they are known as Carpinteros! Needless to say, they cannot be attracted to birdhouses.
Not long ago Flickers were divided into three separate species – the Red Shafted, the Yellow Shafted and the Gilded. The Red Shafted occurs in the Rockies and out to the west coast; the Yellow Shafted occurs east of the Rockies (our local bird); the Gilded occurs in the American Southwest. Ranges of all three overlap somewhat, and here, crossbreeding is common. Therefore, ornithologists (bird experts) decided that all three were just colour phases of the same bird, and were now deemed to be merely forms or races. The new name was the Northern Flicker. Since then, the Gilded Flicker has been restored as a separate species leaving the other two still lumped together as the Northern Flicker. In all likelihood, the Northern Flicker will be, once again, split into the previous two species in the future. Time will tell.
All three are quite similar, but not overly so. The Yellow Shafted has yellow wing linings; the Red Shafted has salmon-red. When the birds fly up these colours stand out and provide easy identification. When perched the markings on the head are different. The Gilded looks like a cross between the other two. A good bird book will show the differences better than any word description can. There are similarities. All three have a clearly defined triangular shaped, black breast band; all have a clearly visible white patch on the lower back at the base of the tail; all make nearly identical sounds. The most common and memorable sound is a repeated and clear flick, flick, flick, . . . The name, Flicker, is derived from its call. Listen for it in the spring during courtship. .
There are five woodpeckers in our area, four of which are common. Of the five, Flickers are the least woodpecker-like. Like all woodpeckers, they cling to tree trunks and power poles in search of food and sites for nest holes; unlike other woodpeckers they perch on branches and power lines, and search for food on the ground. In many ways they behave like Robins or sparrows.
They are selective as to what they eat when on the ground. Their favourite food is ants! They not only eat ants, but rub them on their feathers much the same way people use underarm deodorant. This process is called anting. Nobody is quite sure why it is done, but the general consensus is that the formic acid in the ant’s body keeps parasites away.
Because of their lifestyles, Flickers are great to have around the yard. Quite a few years ago, ants decided to establish a colony in our front lawn. I tried everything from commercial poisons to boiling water to get rid of them, but nothing worked. As it happened, we were away for a week and when we returned, the ants were gone. The anthill was scattered and an area about the size of a dinner plate was covered with holes. It seemed as if a deranged golfer could not decide where to stick in his golf tee. These holes were made by Flickers’ bills as they were probing the hill for ants. This year, ants were particularly bad and some had even colonized one of our flower pots. Again, we were away for several days and when we returned the infested flower pot was a mess with dirt scattered everywhere, but there were no ants. A Flicker had cleaned them out. We, also, had a good sized colony of ants under our patio steps. For several weeks now, one or two Flickers would be there “doing their thing” under the step. I have not checked, but I am guessing that the ant colony is gone. I certainly do like Flickers.
Males and females are similar, except that males have a black moustache (of course). Both parents are active in rearing their young. This week’s photo, taken on our front lawn, shows a parent “teaching” a juvenile how to search for ants. The parent, a male, would move about the lawn until it found something, then call the youngster. The “student” would come and the two would peck away furiously for a short while, then the process would be repeated. We will not be able to observe Flickers much longer, because unlike most woodpeckers, they are migratory and will be gone for the winter.

Foam Lake Birding No. 17




FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 17
This week’s bird, the American Crow, needs no introduction. Again, it is another of those New World birds that have the adjective, American, added because of several, already named, European crows. Later, it was discovered that there actually were two other crows in the Americas that needed names – The Northwestern Crow and Fish Crow. The Fish Crow occurs along the coast and big rivers of the southeastern USA; the Northwestern Crow occurs along the coast and islands of British Columbia. The American Crow exists across most of North America.
The American is bigger than the other two, but there is so much size overlap that they cannot be separated in the field, even in mixed flocks. The only way to tell them apart is by their sounds. Only the American makes a clearly pronounced caw. So, if anybody happens to be in BC and hears a crow making a “funny” sound, it is a Northwestern (similarly with the Fish Crow in the southeastern USA). There is no need to use binoculars as there are no visible differences among all three.
In addition to the three crows, there are two ravens, the Common and Chihuahuan, that add to the confusion. Locally, there are only two birds, the Raven (Common) and the Crow (American) that make identification difficult. The Raven is considerably larger than the Crow, but as previously stated, size is of little use in the field. Obviously, colour is of no use whatsoever. How does one tell them apart? Sound, if the birds cooperate, is the easiest and the best. Ravens croak; Crows caw. If the birds are silent, distinguishing characteristics are subtle indeed! When perched, the Raven has more of a “Roman nose” shaped beak and visible (usually) fluffed out throat feathers that somewhat resemble a beard. The Crow is more streamlined. In general flight, the Raven’s wings are longer and more slender; the body length is longer, especially the head and neck, in proportion to the wings. In overhead flight, the Raven’s tail is quite rounded; the Crow’s is square. In flight toward or away from an observer, the Raven’s wingbeat is flatter and shallower. When coming to a landing, the raven’s wings are extended straight out; the Crow’s wings are lifted slightly upward in a shallow “V” (dihedral). If Ravens or Crows are quartering away or toward an observer it is almost impossible to tell them apart. Often ravens will soar high in the sky like hawks; Crows never do.
As a birder, I am glad that these two birds exist side by side as it were. It gives me a chance to improve my identification skills by forcing me to concentrate on things other than colour, feeding habits and habitat. Focusing on small and subtle details makes it much easier to identify other birds that are similar to each other.
Crows are moderately migratory flying south just to the edge of the snow line. Locally, there is some consolation in that a large black bird seen in the winter is positively a Raven. People in the Maritimes are not so lucky. There, Crows and Ravens are resident year round! This week’s photo was taken in Prince Edward Island in October of 2007.
Crows, along with ravens, magpies and jays belong to a group of birds called Corvids (from Latin for crows). Because of West Nile Disease, the word, Corvid, has become familiar to just about everybody. Corvids carry the west Nile virus. Mosquitoes bite the Corvids, then, bite other birds and animals thus infecting them. Most birds and animals are immune to the disease, but those that are not become casualties. Some bird species have been decimated by the disease. Generally speaking, it could be argued that man is immune. However, some people get sick with West Nile every year and a few of those, unfortunately, die. This year, it has declined sharply.
Overall, Crows (Corvids in general) are a beneficial lot. They feed on insects, carrion, man’s refuse and, unfortunately, eggs and young of other birds. Their diets are almost identical to that of the gulls. Being the most intelligent of all groups of birds, they have learned to live very comfortably near man. European traditions, which were carried over to the New World, always painted large black birds as being somehow evil. They are not. Rather, they are intelligent which makes them difficult for man to control, which in turn makes them unpopular. Of all birds, they are probably, the most interesting to observe.

Foam Lake Birding No. 16


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 16
At this time of the year many of the sights and sounds of our summer birds are no longer with us. Most are getting ready for fall migration while some have already migrated. A few, such as the Purple Martins and Yellow Warblers, are already gone; others, such as Crows and Robins, are preparing for migration by gathering in large flocks. This flocking usually occurs in September, in rural areas, away from the proximity of man. In my many years of bird hunting, I have, on occasion, been pleasantly surprised, upon entering a stand of poplars, to see the entire bluff teeming with Robins. The scene is almost eerie in that, except for the constant rustling of leaves, the Robins are on the ground feeding frantically, but very quietly. Crows congregate on stubble fields to feed on late fall insects, especially those that have been injured in harvesting operations, thereby, providing “easy pickings”. Once frosts become frequent and general, most birds fly south to a more plentiful food supply.
Of all migratory birds, probably, the most noticeable are the geese. The large noisy flocks are hard to miss. Even though they look a lot alike, geese and ducks are quite different. Overall, geese are considerably larger, even though some small geese are about the size of a large Mallard. Male and female geese are identical; male and female ducks are unlike. Care of goslings is shared by both parents; care of ducklings is handled by the female alone. Geese graze; ducks do not. Identifying geese is quite easy, because there are only three species as compared to the dozen or so ducks, and the species are quite different from one another.
Prior to the Europeans coming to America, apparently, geese were not nearly as plentiful as they are today. The clearing of land for agriculture has provided an abundant source of food for migrating flocks, as most farmers can attest to, thus ensuring higher survival rates. Agriculture, together with regulated hunting, has resulted in a dramatic increase in some goose populations to the point that there is growing concern with over population. In any case, the migrating flocks are a delightful sight and a sure sign that spring (or fall) has come.
One species of goose that is congregating for fall migration, locally, is this week’s featured bird and our national bird emblem – the Canada Goose. Yes, the Canada Goose is Canada’s national bird emblem and not the loon as many people believe. Close up, the birds with their grey-brown bodies, black necks and black heads with white “chin straps” are unmistakable. Migrating Canadas are usually easy to identify in flight because they fly in distinct “Vs” unlike other geese that fly in loose lines. Canada Geese are only moderately migratory. They fly south only as far as the first open water where they will stay until that body of water freezes over, then, they move further south until the next open water, and so on. In the spring, they reverse the procedure. The birds in this week’s picture are a flock of local Honkers resting in a shallow slough just north of Don and Edith Halyk’s house.
Canada Geese are extremely variable in size from the three pound Cackling to the ten pound Common (Honker, as it is known locally). In fact, there are six distinct groups of Canadas all even having their own names! They are: Cackling, Aleutian, Dusky, Richardson’s, Lesser and Common. (Recently, the Cackling Goose has been categorized as a distinct species.) Three of them, Richardson’s (5 lb.), Lesser (6lb.) and Common (10lb.), are all found here, with only the common being resident during the summer. The weights are only an average. The biggest Commons can reach twenty pounds or so.
Having traveled in Europe a little, I was surprised and disappointed by the almost total absence of large birds there, especially waterfowl. Streams and lakes had some gulls and wading birds, but few, if any, ducks, geese, coots and so on. In comparison, we are overrun with wildlife. Here. A flock of geese is so commonplace that it is usually ignored. However, I still find myself looking up at a flock of Canadas (or anything else for that matter) and appreciating the abundance of wildlife that we have in this great country of ours.

Foam Lake Birding No. 15


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 15
At this time of year many of our backyards are being invaded by small, often drab, yellowish birds on the start of their fall migration. Up to twenty different species of these energetic, almost frenetic, birds can be seen in our yards at one time or another.
These little birds, unique to the Americas, are called wood warblers. Because they do not exist in the Old World, they had no “ready made” name as it were. Therefore, they were named after similar, but unrelated, Old World birds – the warblers. The adjective, wood, was added to differentiate the two groups. Here, in North America, we refer to our wood warblers simply as warblers. Males and females of Old World warblers are similar and basically brown in colour; male and female wood warblers are different (except for five species) and much more colourful with the majority being yellow to some degree.
Spring is the best time to observe warblers as the males are in their colourful spring plumage and are quite distinctive. The females are pale versions of the males. In the fall, the males have molted and look like the females making identification very challenging to say the least. In the summer, most warblers are nesting in the boreal forests leaving us with only one species – the Yellow Warbler. The problem facing birders is that, during migration, not many warblers come into our backyards in the spring, but many do in the fall. Why? A good guess would be that our fall visitors are probably juveniles that have not developed a keen wariness of man. Whatever the reasons, one usually, has to leave one’s backyard to see spring warblers. Warblers, in general, like thickets near water. Therefore, one good location to observe them is along Milligan Creek on the nature trail near the visitor’s centre. I do intend to cover a few warblers next spring when they are “at their best”.
In the early fall, one of the most common warblers in town is this week’s featured bird – the Tennessee Warbler. It is so named because it was first identified in Tennessee, but is common here during migration. Like most warblers, it is smaller than a sparrow; has a needle-like beak; and usually wears a fair amount of yellow. Some, especially juveniles, can be quite pale with very little yellow. It is very similar to several other species, but has three subtle and distinguishing features: first, it has a yellowish green back and tail; second, it has a modest whitish eyebrow line enhancing the black line through the eye; third, it is white on the lower belly at the base of the tail (under tail coverts). A small, drab yellowish warbler with all of the above features is most likely a Tennessee Warbler.
Getting a picture of a warbler is quite frustrating as they are constantly flitting about in shrubs and trees looking for small insects. This week’s photo shows a Tennessee Warbler, in typical pose, gleaning insects from the underside of a leaf. To attract these, and other warblers, to your garden in the fall leave a small stand of dill. Dill seems to attract small insects which, in turn, attract warblers. At times, a small dill patch will have several species of warblers feeding together.
At the beginning of the Labour Day weekend, our backyard was literally swarming with finches, sparrows and warblers. On Monday, September 1, there was not a bird in sight. I assumed the dull and dreary weather was to blame, but when a Cooper’s Hawk landed on our lawn, I knew the real reason! Feeders do attract birds, but birds, in turn, do attract predators. Predatory animals, like cats, do cause some excitement, but do not really scare the birds that much; predatory birds do. There are four such birds that are actually quite common in our area: the Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp Shinned Hawk, Merlin and Northern Shrike. They catch birds in flight, and bird feeders are a handy source of food. I tried to get a picture of the hawk, but it took off as soon as it noticed my movement. Within minutes after the hawk left, the birds were back at the feeders. The fear does not last long! Such are the ways of nature.
At least half a dozen of these small yellowish warblers come to our garden each fall and identifying them is challenging. As of this writing, we have had nine different species of Wood Warblers in our backyard: Blackburnian, Cape May, Orange Crowned, Oven Bird, Redstart, Tennessee, Wilson’s, Yellow and Yellow Rumped (Myrtle). We do expect to see a few more. Quite often the birds cannot be positively identified. In addition, another group of unrelated, but similar birds, the vireos, have arrived. Three species, the Blue Headed, Philadelphia and Red Eyed, have been in our backyard for several days now. For a beginning birder, the task of identification can be daunting and even overwhelming. At a time like this, one should set identification aside and enjoy these energetic little birds as a whole. In a couple of weeks or so, depending on the weather, they will be gone.

Foam Lake Birding No. 14


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 14
When one visits a body of water, such as a slough, usually, the first bird to appear is the Red Winged Blackbird. It is a bird of the marshes, but unlike its larger cousin, the Yellow Headed Blackbird, the Redwing does not require a large body of water – any small slough will do. Nesting takes place over water in reeds and cattails. During breeding season, the Redwings are very territorial with each pair requiring about an acre or so of marsh in which to nest and raise its young. Like the Brewer’s blackbird, it harasses intruders energetically.
After fledging, young and mature Redwings may congregate in huge flocks in preparation for fall migration. In the past, Redwings were considered to be the most populous of North American birds. With the draining of wetlands, this may no longer be the case, however, there still are oodles of them around. Even though, their diet is comprised mainly of insects, worms and grubs, they do like to eat grain – especially oats! An infestation of Redwings in an oat field can cause some serious harm to a farmer’s bottom line. Because of their large populations and for ethical reasons, removal or extermination is impossible. Scare tactics, such as automatically fired field (noise) cannons, work very well. These devices also keep other “uninvited guests” away. On their wintering grounds, they like to frequent bird feeders to the point where they become a nuisance.
. During the winter, they can be found throughout the USA, northern Mexico and some parts of southern Canada. One can get the impression that they are more or less resident. In fact, Redwings are migratory, but their migration patterns are interesting – like musical chairs. Birds from Canada fly to the northern US; birds from the northern US fly to the southern US; birds from the southern US fly to Mexico. The bulk of them do end up in Mexico, however.
This near Robin-sized bird is quite distinctive and should not be confused with any other bird around here. A male Red Winged sports a bright orange-red shoulder patch (hence its name) bordered by a yellow stripe (bar). When perched, the Redwing usually conceals its red patch with only the yellow bar being clearly visible, as shown in this week’s photo. It will show off its red patches during courtship display, but it is best seen when the bird is in flight and they are always exposed. The female is striped dark brown and tan, and looks like a large sparrow.
Those of you with bird books will have noticed that there are two other “Red Winged” blackbirds listed. One has a red patch, but with no yellow (or white) bar. This one is simply a form, or colour phase, of the same bird we have here, and occurs only in California. The other, the Tricoloured Blackbird, is an entirely different species, but looks identical in every way-almost. Tricoloureds have a dark red shoulder patch (not orange-red) bordered by a white bar–usually. Otherwise, the birds are inseparable. To really make things more difficult, the colour differences in the patches and bars of the two species can vary enough to overlap! How can they be separated? First, the Tricoloured is a California resident that occurs in isolated spots in Arizona and Oregon. Second, blackbirds, as a group, are horrible singers, but our Redwing is more musical than most, but most definitely not a contender for American Idol! Third, the Redwings are territorial nesters; while, the Tricoloureds are social and nest in colonies. The reason for my going into so much detail about two birds from California is to emphasize the need to avoid identifying birds by colour alone. An acquaintance of mine claims to this day that he had seen a Tricoloured Blackbird in his slough based on his observation that the normally yellow wing bars were white! What he had seen was a Redwing with washed out bars. If a bird is identified as a species that occurs many kilometres away, then in all likelihood the bird has been misidentified. Look for something else that is similar and occurs regularly around here. Always think colour variation. Rare birds, especially highly migratory ones, do occasionally stray far from their normal ranges; resident ones do not. Birding ethics (yes, there are such things) require that a sighting of a rare bird be confirmed by witnesses and, if possible, by photographs. Otherwise, it never happened. I will probably be dealing with this in future

Foam Lake Birding No. 13


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 13
After three articles about swimming birds, it is time to move on to something else for awhile. “Lucky 13” is going to be a wader. Waders are a diverse group of related and unrelated birds that range in size from sparrows to geese. Some are brightly coloured; others may be a very drab brown, but all have similar feeding habits. With their long legs and bills, they walk the shores and shallows of suitable wetlands picking food from the mud and water. However, it should be pointed out that there are a few that do like fly out to fields and meadows to feed.
This week’s subject, the American Avocet, is one of our most beautiful birds. This crow-sized wader has a pinkish tan head, neck and upper breast, white underside, and striking black and white wings and back. The long black bill is curved slightly upward; the legs are a pale blue. With or without binoculars, this bird is unmistakable. There is no other bird like it. Males and females are the same. It does not feed on shore, but in the water as deep as its legs will allow. The long bill is dipped fully into the water and moved from side to side in a sweeping motion straining the water for small swimming creatures. The bill is very sensitive and once an unfortunate water bug touches it, the bill snaps shut catching it.
I know it is becoming repetitious, but it must be pointed out that because of Avocets that are in Europe, ours had the word, American, added to it. Again, for reasons stated before, I usually refer to it simply as the Avocet.
This week’s picture of a single Avocet was taken at the Foam Lake lagoon just north of town. This bird was not alone as there were four other Avocets just a few metres back. The location may not be appealing for obvious reasons, but it is an excellent place to observe water birds. After all, the birds do not mind. In order to get a good long look, it is best to observe water birds from a vehicle if possible. Birds tend to allow a person in a vehicle to approach quite closely, but become skittish if one is on foot. Many of the pictures in these columns were taken from inside a vehicle using a window mounted camera. Another excellent location is the Foam Lake Heritage Marsh. The roofed over lookout tower provides good viewing from outside the confines of a vehicle. However, a scope is almost a necessity as the distances are too great even for binoculars.
It is only in the last few decades that the Avocet has become common in our area. Prior to that, one had to go to the grasslands in the southern part of the province and observe it in the many alkaline sloughs present there. Being a bird of the open prairie, the clearing of farm land probably had a lot to do with it expanding its range northward. Whatever the reasons, it surely is nice to have it present here now. If at all possible, try and get a look at it before it starts its migration to the southern USA and Mexico. For people who like birds, this one will not be forgotten.

Foam Lake birding No. 12


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 12
When it comes to water birds that swim, there are many more than just ducks and geese. Gulls are just such a group. With their waterproof feathers and fully webbed feet, they can and do ride the waves as well as any duck or goose. Not only can gulls do what ducks do, but they can do other things as well. First, they perch on buildings, poles, cars and so on. Second, they have special glands that extract salt from water, which allows them to drink from oceans and salt water lakes such as the Quill Lakes. Third, they can eat just about anything that man eats, and more. Isolated from man, gulls’ diets include insects, smaller birds and animals, but not vegetable matter. Near humans, their preference is man’s refuse, if it is available. Like man, they seem to enjoy processed food – even grain based foods such as bread. Because of their scavenging habits, they are considered very useful in cleaning up birds and animals killed by vehicles, hunters or disease. They are especially good at keeping shore lines clean of dead fish. Their feeding habits undoubtedly reduce the spreading of diseases. For these and other reasons, all gulls are protected by law.
Five different species of gulls occur locally; two are common, one is uncommon but regular, two occur occasionally during migration. Probably, the most common is the Franklin’s Gull – especially during wet years. Of the three black headed gulls in Canada, only two occur here, and only the Franklin’s Gull can be seen in the summer. In other words, if one sees a black headed gull in the summer, it is almost certainly this one. The bill and feet are red; the breast is pink that quickly fades to white after death. White feathers around the eye contrast sharply with the solid black head. The wing tips are black. Like the other black headed gulls, it makes a ‘laughing” sound that has resulted in this group also being called the Laughing Gulls. The young take two years to mature. During this period, they are a dull grey with dark spots and streaks and no black heads. As with all gulls, males and females are identical and cannot be told apart in the field.
In the past, when farming practices included extensive summer fallowing, it was a common sight to see a flock of Franklin’s gulls following a farmer working in his field. The freshly disturbed soil provided a banquet of newly exposed insects, worms and mice. In such instances, more than one farmer was “bombed” by gulls flying overhead. Strangely enough, this seldom evoked anger. Instead, it became a source of amusement – especially to onlookers! Some companies even manufactured caps featuring a “gull bomb” on it.
Although some summer fallowing takes place today, it no longer plays a major role in the Franklin’s Gulls’ lives. As a result, they spend most of their time around lakes, sloughs and marshes. On rainy days, when earthworms have come to the surface in order to avoid drowning, Franklin’s Gulls will congregate in school yards, parks, golf courses, pastures and even lawns to gorge themselves. At times, a small flock will even march down a town street picking earthworms from the gutters. During dry years, they will, occasionally, fly out to grasshopper infested areas to feed. However, because they prefer to be near water, they are rather scarce during dry years and are rarely seen during the summer.
On July 11th, a lady in town phoned me to report that a flock of gulls was in the Composite School grounds. I drove out to take a look and saw a good sized flock of Franklin’s Gulls and several white headed Ring Billed Gulls that had already eaten and were now relaxing during a misty rain. Because it was so heavily overcast, I was unable to get a good picture. It definitely was a “gull” day. Not all birding takes place on sunny days!
During our winter travels in the southern United States and Mexico, I have seen the other two black headed gulls, but never the Franklin’s Gull. It is highly migratory and spends its winters from Guatemala in Central America to Chile in South America! Why? Nobody really knows. Of all the gulls it is the most social and is seldom seen in ones and twos, usually in larger flocks of a dozen or more birds. This year, being a relatively wet one, is a good time to observe Franklin’s Gulls.

Foam Lake Birding No. 11




FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 11
This week’s featured duck is the other green head – the Northern Shoveler. It gets the name, Shoveler, from the shape of its bill, which is flared at the end to give it the appearance of a shovel or a spoon. In fact, a common nickname for the Shoveler is Spoonbill. – a name already applied to a large tropical wading bird. Because there are other Shovelers in the tropics, this one is designated the Northern Shoveler, however, since this is the only duck of its kind around here, it will be referred to simply as the Shoveler.
The shape of its bill determines its feeding habits. Unlike the mallard, the Shoveler seldom tips over to feed. Rather, it swims low in the water with its bill partially submerged or its head entirely submerged in order to strain the water for small pond creatures and plant material. Moreover, Shovelers almost never fly out to the fields to feed on grain. Their food is obtained from shallow and usually muddy waters. Because of this, they do not make a good table bird, even though they may be legally hunted. A roasted Shoveler, not properly prepared prior to cooking, definitely tastes like it has spent time in the mud.
In birding, as with any other activity, a person should learn some specialized words and their meaning. This makes it much easier to communicate with other birders, particularly when describing birds. Readers may have noticed that at times I have used the word, beak, and at other times the word, bill. Through many years of common usage, the word, beak, is applied to those birds that can peck or tear flesh; the word, bill, is for all the rest. Birding experts (ornithologists) use the word, bill, exclusively. Feel free to use either word. They are completely interchangeable. In addition to beaks and bills, I have been using the words, breast and belly in my descriptions. The breast is the part of the bird’s underside that starts at the base of the neck and extends about one third of the way down the body; the belly covers the remaining two thirds. There will be a few more of these technical words in the future, but I do intend to keep them to a minimum. It is the intent of this column to make things easier for birders not more difficult.
How does one distinguish between a Mallard and a Shoveler? First, the Shoveler is considerably smaller. In mixed flocks this is a good field mark. Second, the bill is quite different. With its long length and bulbous end, the Shoveler’s bill looks almost too big for the size of the duck. In fact, this characteristic can be used to distinguish it from all other ducks. Third, the drakes are distinctly coloured. Once an observer gets past the green head, the rest of the duck is markedly different. The Mallard has a rich brown breast; the Shoveler has a bright white one. The Mallard has a grey belly; the Shoveler has a rich brown one. Even at a glance, a green headed duck that shows a lot of white can safely be identified as a Shoveler. A Mallard is basically grey. These distinctions are even more pronounced when the ducks are in flight. From front to back, a drake Shoveler in flight is green (head), white (breast) and brown (belly); a drake Mallard is green, brown and grey, respectively. The hens are so similar there are only non-colour distinctions that can be easily used in the field.. In mixed flocks, size can be used, as can the shape of the bill. Probably, the best way to tell them apart is to see what drakes they are “hanging around” with. Even though ducks do occasionally hybridize (crossbreed), generally speaking, they associate with their own kind – Mallards with Mallards, Shovelers with Shovelers.
Both ducks are very common and quite often can be seen from a vehicle in potholes along roadsides. Today’s photo shows several Shovelers feeding in characteristic fashion with a Franklin’s Gull in the foreground.

Foam Lake Birding No. 10




FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 10
In the first nine articles I wrote exclusively about “back yard” birds. Hopefully, this will pique interest in birds and birding among both, beginners and the experienced. There are many more “backyard” birds, but they will have to wait until later. For the rest of the summer, I intend to do what many like doing – spending time near water. In my case, I will be writing about birds of lakes, sloughs and swamps.
I like to clump water birds into three groups: song birds of the reeds and bushes, long legged wading birds, and birds that spend time on the water itself. When water birds are mentioned, probably, the birds that first come to mind are ducks. Therefore, I will begin this series with ducks.
Ducks can be separated into two categories by the way they feed when on the water itself. Those that tip up with their tails in the air and/or their heads under water in search of food are called dabblers; those that go under water completely are called divers. As a result, divers are usually found on deeper and more open bodies of water; dabblers on shallower more secluded areas. Divers nest on the water on rafts made of reeds; dabblers nest in fields and pastures quite some distance from water. Dabblers will be featured in this and the next column.
Choosing the first duck was very easy. The Mallard is the most populous and well known duck, not only around here, but in the world. It occurs naturally throughout the northern hemisphere and has been introduced to places like Australia! The drake has a dark green head, rich brown breast and grey belly; the hen is an overall brown and looks like many other female ducks. The drakes make a reedy “yeeb” sound, while the hens make the familiar “quack” that is associated with ducks in general. Hens of several other species make the same “quack” sound, but no drakes do. In the summer, when the drakes molt to the same colours as the hens, it is best to tell them apart by their vocalizations. Mallards of both sexes have a distinctive bright, dark blue wing patch (speculum) bordered on two sides by white that is most visible when the birds are in flight. Mallards, also, have the peculiar trait of occasionally nesting in a previous year’s crow’s nest! The newly hatched ducklings jump out of their nest and tumble to the ground unhurt. Then, they follow the mother to the nearest water. Today’s picture shows “mom” with seven youngsters in tow. The three ducklings in front belong to another species altogether.
The Mallard is one of our largest ducks that feeds on grain as well as pond creatures. Ask any grain farmer. Because of its size and eating habits, the Mallard was domesticated many centuries ago. In many parts of Europe and Asia, it is a popular source of meat much like the turkey is in North America. Due to selective breeding the Mallard, like chickens, geese and turkeys, has increased in size to the point where it is incapable of sustained flight. Furthermore, it now comes in a variety of colours in addition to the familiar green head. These non-mallard looking varieties even have their own name – Pekin Duck . Except for the Muscovy, it is believed that all domestic ducks come from the Mallard! In the wild, the goose-sized Muscovy lives in the American tropics.
In what appears to be a trend, I must point out that another duck, the Northern Shoveler, is somewhat similar to a Mallard. The drakes of both species have green heads, which is confusing to beginning birders. I will be writing about it in next week’s column, meanwhile, find yourself a slough and see if you can identify both. Keep in mind, there are twelve different kinds of ducks that are common in our area.