Foam Lake Birding No. 37

No. 37
Last week I implied that I would be writing only about birds of the Rio Grande Valley. Well, we went on a boat tour of the marshes of the Aransas National Wildlife Preserve and saw one of North America’s rarest and most spectacular birds – the Whooping Crane. Promise broken!
In the first half of the last century, the Whooping Crane population reached an all time low of seventeen birds – by some counts. There was serious discussion as to whether to save the cranes or let them die out. Some even proposed that the Whoopers should be killed off so that the few remaining birds could be mounted as stuffed specimens perpetuating the memory of an extinct species! This is what unintentionally happened to the Carolina Parakeet, Great Auk, Ivory Billed Woodpecker and Passenger Pigeon among others (the Ivory Billed Woodpecker is reportedly not extinct as previously thought, although there is some debate about the sightings). Fortunately, it was decided to save the cranes.
At present, there are about 500 Whoopers overall with about 300 of those in the wild. The remaining 200 are maintained in captivity and used as breeding stock to ensure the survival of the cranes in case of a disaster to the wild flock.
At present, there are two separate wild flocks. By far the largest flock nests in northern Alberta in Wood Buffalo National Park and winters in the Aransas Preserve along the coast of southern Texas. A smaller flock has been established in Wisconsin and winters in Florida. This smaller flock appears to be successful as young have been reared in the wild. Other flocks are planned, but the process is very slow. It is essential to have several migratory flocks so that if a disaster (like a hurricane) strikes, at least some of the flocks will be safe and perpetuate the species.
Unlike its smaller close cousin, the Sandhill Crane, the Whooper does not flock for migration or for any other reason. It is always territorial even on its wintering grounds, whereas, the Sandhill migrates and winters in vast flocks in the southern USA. This means that the Whoopers need vast amounts of favourable habitat for nesting and wintering. In short, habitat for its survival is not easy to procure and establish. Unless it changes its habits (like the raven or Canada Goose) it will probably never be common.
Physically, the Whooping Crane is North America’s largest bird (the heaviest is the Trumpeter Swan). It is pure white with black legs, wing tips and a kind of mask around the bill, and a bald red patch on its forehead (similar to a chicken or turkey). In flight it extends its legs backward and its neck forward. It looks like a white cross with black on all of its extremities. Once seen it is unmistakable. Males and females are identical. However, some other birds are often misidentified as Whooping Cranes. The three are: the White Pelican (neck and legs are not stretched out, but tucked in so the bird looks pudgy); the Trumpeter and Tundra Swans (wings are pure white – no black tips). .
Whoopers fiercely protect themselves and their young, and are fully capable of fending off a fox or coyote. In fact, the banding of Whoopers was discontinued because of the damage wreaked by the cranes on the banders.
This week’s picture shows a family unit of two parents and one youngster. The young one has a lot of rusty brown on it, especially on its head and neck. (I know, your picture is not coloured). The youngster is the one in the middle trying to eat a fish it has caught, but knows not how to eat it! Until next time, adios.

Foam Lake Birding No. 36

This is a first for me – writing directly from afar. My California articles were written in Foam Lake before we left for Carlsbad. As a result my vacation time was free, as it were. In this case, I will be writing from the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas (where the temperatures presently range from 20C to 35C). Another first is that I will be using the internet to get these articles to the Foam Lake Review. Hopefully, everything works out well.
This week’s featured bird is very common throughout all of the wooded areas around here. However, most of the land has been cleared for agriculture which obviously has had an effect on the birds themselves. Therefore most of the birds are concentrated in nature preserves, although, some ranchers/farmers are nature lovers and have good stands of bush on their properties with resultant bird populations.
The birds look like dingy brown pheasants, but are only distantly related to them and the chicken family as a whole. The Chachalaca (pronounced cha-cha-la-ca), though common, is very difficult to spot in the wild. Hunting them for food by peasants has made them very wary of humans. The birds live in small flocks feeding on the forest floor, but roost in trees like chickens or turkeys. In fact, except for feeding, they spend almost their entire time in trees where they are very agile and silent – much like squirrels. One could be in the middle of a flock of Chachalacas and not be aware of it! The only way to get a really good look at them is in wildlife preserves and parks where they have become quite tame.
The Chachalaca gets its name from its loud and distinctive call – cha cha lac, usually given in the morning or evening. While roosting, one of the dominant birds lets out a loud cha cha lac, whereupon the rest of the flock joins in the chorus (racket). This can continue for several minutes, followed by a period of silence to be followed by a repeat performance. It is quite an experience to hear them. It could be compared to the gobbling domesticated turkeys make when they are startled. The Aztecs called the bird “he who will not stop talking”.
This week’s photo shows two Chachalacas and an Inca Dove (very common throughout the Southwest) eating seeds that have been spilled by Cardinals and House Sparrows from a feeder hanging directly above. I tried to get the muskrat-sized Fox Squirrel in the picture, but squirrels and Chachalacas do not like each other very much so I could not get a good picture with both of them in it.
In closing this first “Texas” article, I would like to point out that the lower Rio Grande Valley is very Mexican in all aspects – the people, the plants and animals. The birds that I will be writing about are found here and nowhere else in the USA or Canada. I should also point out that many summer residents of the Foam Lake area, especially water fowl, winter here, however, I will write about them when they have migrated back to the Canadian prairies. In the meantime, I hope you find these articles about the Rio Grande birds interesting. Adios from southern Texas.

Foam Lake Birding No. 35

No. 35
It is time to write about another one of our residents, a bird that is only somewhat migratory, and at the same time, introduce the readers to a new group of birds – the owls. Most owls, but not all, are nocturnal. That is, they are active only at night. Because owls do not have sonar capabilities (the way bats do), they, as a group, have developed a number of characteristics that make them special, as it were.
First, an owl’s feathers have special barbs on them that allow the bird to fly in complete silence. In other words, there is no “flapping” or “whooshing” sound as the bird flies through the air. This feature allows the owl to fly right up to its prey without the prey ever hearing it. This characteristic is unique to owls and of tremendous advantage to them.
Second, their eyes have several adaptations that allow them to see in very poor light (no owl can see in total darkness). The eyes are disproportionately large in relation to an owl’s body size. Most birds (and man) have two kinds of cells in their eyes – rod cells to pick up light, and cone cells to pick out colour. Because much of the eye is occupied by cone cells, these creatures see colour, but have poor vision in dim light. There simply are not enough rod cells! They are always diurnal (active only during the day). To overcome this problem, owls have evolved with rod cells only. They do not see colour, instead they have excellent vision in dim light because of the very large eyes that are full of rod cells only. This is a great advantage for a predator.
Third, in order to physically allow an owl to have such disproportionately large eyes, there are no eye muscles to move the eye around the way man does. This lack of muscles provides more room in the owl’s head for larger eyes, but the eyes are now “stuck” permanently facing forward in a stationary position. To overcome this drawback, the owl has nine vertebrae in its neck (man has only seven) allowing it to turn its head almost 360 degrees (man can barely turn his head 180 degrees).
Four, scientists now believe that many birds, especially predators, can see ultra violet light (man cannot). Apparently, most rodents’ waste (urine and feces) give off ultra violet light which the owl can see and thus help it to zero in on its prey.
Five, anybody who has seen an owl or a picture of one is always struck by the eyes being surrounded by a disc or dish of feathers giving the bird its “owl” look. These feathery discs are not cosmetic in nature, but are sound gathering devices much like the dishes people use to receive satellite signals. These discs amplify the quietist of sounds so that an owl can hear a mouse scurrying across a forest floor quite some distance away. In addition, the ears are offset a little forcing sounds to reach the ears at slightly different times. The brain is then able to process the sounds so that the owl can focus on the origins of the sounds with great precision. In fact, in several experiments owls were able to catch rodents in buildings where there was absolutely no light. They did it by hearing alone!
This week’s featured bird is the smaller of our two “eared” owls – the Long Eared Owl. This slender crow-sized owl is very secretive. Being nocturnal it is commonly seen, if seen at all, in the daytime hugging the trunk of a tree usually in dense brush. Even though it is quite common it is often overlooked.
The “ear” tufts are not ears at all but feathers that are there for purely cosmetic reasons. This is one of the few owls that actually “hoots”, but it also barks like a terrier if it or its young are threatened.
The Long Eared Owl occurs throughout the northern hemisphere north to the tree line. It usually stays away from deep forest preferring to live at the forest’s edge, or in prairie bluffs – especially if evergreens are present. It nests almost exclusively in old crow’s nests. By knowing where crows nested one year can be quite helpful in finding a Long Eared Owl’s the next.
I was lucky enough to see and get a photo of this week’s bird at San Elijo Lagoon just north of San Diego. This owl is somewhat migratory and, in the winter time, can only be seen in the southern part of our province.

Foam Lake Birding No. 34

No. 34
It was never my intention to do a repeat article on a particular bird. However, an extraordinary event this past week made me do just that.
In my last article, I had written about a flock of nine Grey Partridges (Huns) landing in our neighbour’s front yard. Several days later, about 5:15PM, I was sitting in our living room when I noticed a flock of “little chickens” walking on the deep snow in our front yard. They were Huns alright – probably the same ones that I had written about last week. I did not see them land; I just saw them walking leisurely from north to south. When they got to the hedge on the south side of our yard, they slowly gathered into a cluster of birds partially buried in the soft deep snow. They were still there when it was getting quite dark. It appears they spent the night there.
I got several pictures of them just as the light was starting to fade for the evening. As a result of the poor light, the pictures are not of the best quality, but they more than adequately capture an unusual event in the birding world. I, also, got several shots of the Huns before they gathered to roost for the night. One of the photos (of several walking birds) came out in quite good resolution. However, I decided to publish the picture of them huddled together like a bowl full of perogies. They simply looked cute! It does appear that Foam Lake just might have its own family of Huns that do not mind (perhaps, even like) human presence. I certainly hope so.
The high winds of this past week knocked one of our niger seed feeders down. When it fell down the lid came off, but only a few seeds actually spilled onto the snow. It was quite comical watching a Redpoll “walking” into the open end of the feeder in order to get at the niger seed inside.
Last week we drove to Humboldt for a weekend visit. On our way there, about halfway between Dafoe and Watson, we saw a beautiful Snowy Owl sitting on a power post. Unfortunately, I did not have my camera with me. It would have made a terrific picure.
Finally, I want to announce that I now have my very own website that contains all of the Foam Lake Birding articles. It is current. The site also has all of the photos that appear in the Foam Lake Review except that they are not cropped and in full colour. In addition, I have usually added another picture or two to each article that, for reasons of economy, cannot appear in the local newspaper. For example, my article on the Northern Shrike stated that it had just killed a Redpoll that lay in a heap on the snow beneath it. The newspaper article had the Redpoll cropped out; the website shows it as described in the write up. In addition, I also included another picture of the Shrike sitting on a branch with the Redpoll impaled on a thorn right beside it. It simply adds to the event.