Foam Lake Birding No. 51

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

Foam Lake Birding No. 50

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

Foam Lake Birding No. 49

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

Foam Lake Birding No. 48

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