Foam Lake Birding No. 60

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

Foam Lake Birding No. 59

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

Foam Lake Birding No. 58

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

Foam Lake Birding No. 57

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