Foam Lake Birding No. 105



FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 105
One of the birds that has arrived from the north earlier than usual is the crested Bohemian Waxwing. Small flocks have come in to our backyard frequently to feed on fruit still hanging on the trees from the summer. Unlike their smaller cousins, the very tame Cedar Waxwings, Bohemians are very skittish and even the smallest human movement in a window will cause them to flee. However, unless really frightened, they will return.
Even before one can get close enough to pick out their colours and other physical features, Bohemians can be recognized by their behaviour when flying or feeding. In flight, a flock of Bohemians look like stubby cigars with wings barrelling through the air; when perched, they look like a platoon of soldiers sitting in formation facing in the same direction and at the same vertical angle save for one or two "rebels". Once feeding starts they break formation.
At a glance the two waxwings are very similar (see Article No. 59) but upon closer examination can be quite easily separated. Around here Cedar Waxwings are summer residents while Bohemians are winter visitors so identification is not a problem, but in the very southern part of our province and in the northern states the two coexist in the wintertime. Here, confusion can result.
In mixed flocks the Cedars are noticeably smaller and have much more brown than the greyer Bohemians. Separately, they can be easily differentiated by: first, Bohemians have noticeable white feathering in the wings while Cedars do not; second, Bohemians have a jagged yellow stripe running from the red "wax" spot in the middle of the wing to the tip of the wing which the Cedars do not; third, Bohemians have rich brown under tail coverts while the Cedars have light yellow ones. In the field one seldom gets to see all the characteristics at once, rather usually only two or three will be seen at any one time. For the expert out there, there are several other more subtle field marks that can be used but are not really necessary as the more obvious ones are sufficient. In the accompanying colour photos the last three features are clearly shown.
Their vocalizations are different too, but require a bit of field experience to use them effectively for identification purposes. The Cedar has a rather high pitched insect-like zree sound while the Bohemian has a similar but lower and coarser version of zree.
If one has fruit trees that keep their fruit over the winter Bohemian Waxwings are almost sure to pay a visit. Some good examples of such trees are Chokecherry, Elderberry, crab apple and especially Mountain Ash (Rowan Tree). They are sloppy eaters and oftentimes leave more on the snow than they eat.
There is one rather humourous thing that happens to Bohemian Waxwings from time to time. If the weather is right with spells of warm days in the early spring, some of the fruit will ferment and produce alcohol. When Bohemian waxwings gorge themselves on this fruit they literally become drunk exhibiting all the characteristics of inebriation. Flight is erratic and landing is even more problematic. There have been reports of them actually falling out of trees.
One warm March day not that long ago I walked over to my neighbour's place for a visit. Along his driveway were three Bohemian Waxwings sitting in the snow at the base of a crab apple tree completely oblivious to my close presence. Two of them were fluttering in a deep footprint in the snow trying to but unable to fly out of it. I stopped to watch them for a minute or so only to have them stare back at me with a blank look in their eyes. When I left the house after the visit, the birds were gone. I obviously do not have any proof that they were drunk but there is no other conclusion because they would never have let me approach them so closely nor would they have had any difficulty flying out of a footprint in the snow, unless their mental capabilities were diminished in some way.
This week's pictures were taken in our backyard. The Bohemian Waxwings were feeding on apples still hanging on our apple tree, and no, they were not drunk. With patience and stealth I took these pictures through the window. The pictures actually came out quite sharp but more importantly, the birds were not scared away as would have happened had I stepped outside to get the shots.

Foam Lake Birding No. 104



FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 104
It is December and most winter birds are here already with the exception of Evening and Pine Grosbeaks. These two species are very irruptive and may be abundant for a year or two and then be completely absent the next several or even many years. Hopefully one or both grosbeaks will come and visit us this year.
In our backyard the feeders have been swarmed by Pine Siskins accompanied by House Finches, House sparrows, Red and White Breasted Nuthatches, Chickadees and one lone Junco. Throw in several pairs of woodpeckers and the odd raven and our yard has been really quite busy.
The Chickadees and Nuthatches are usually bullied by all the other birds and have to wait patiently for a chance to quickly grab a seed and fly away to eat it elsewhere. They have also developed the practice of feeding rather late in the evening when the other birds have gone to roost for the night and early in the morning before most birds are up. This way they can feed in peace without being harassed by the other birds.
This year the two species of "winter" woodpeckers, the Downy and Hairy, seem to have developed an interesting and unusual way of feeding that I have never seen before. Both woodpeckers fly up under the eaves of our house and feed on something there. It could be insects that were caught in spider webs and were not eaten by the spiders; it could be insects hibernating in cracks in the siding; or, it could be a little of both. Whatever the reason the woodpecker's drumming resonates throughout the house and, though loud, is actually quite pleasant in its own way. In Texas, woodpeckers commonly drum on buildings especially in the spring but around here it is not common at any time of year.
Since the recent bout of cold weather our flock of Pine Siskins has abandoned us as have the House Finches and the lone Junco. As a result our nyjer and canola feeders are still full and will stay that way unless the Redpolls come and take over where the Siskins left off. Redpolls are irruptive so there is no guarantee that they will come on this or any given year. We can only hope. The sunflower or black oil seeds have been consumed at an average rate, however, for some reason many of the remaining birds have really been attracted to the peanut feeder this year. So much so, that it looks like this could be the first year that it will have to replenished. The woodpeckers on the other hand can be found equally at any one of: the raw suet wired to a tree, the peanut feeder or the suet/cornmeal/peanut butter in the log. Being the dominant birds they are the backyard bullies at the feeders.
As alluded to earlier we seem to have more woodpeckers than usual this year. There is at least one pair each of Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers regularly at our feeders and often both at once with the Downys submitting to the Hairys. For this week's article I got pictures of the females of each species rather than the males which I usually do. Mustn't be sexist you know. Anyway, for a more in depth discussion of the a Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers see Articles Nos. 27 and 64 respectively.

john Senkiw

Foam Lake Birding No. 102



FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 102
Now that the snow is here to stay it is time to cover a bird that is common here in winter. Since winter birds have not yet arrived from the north one is left only with permanent residents. To me, permanent residents are sort of special because they provide some measure of stability in the environment when everything else is changing with the seasons.
One of our permanent residents that is seen more often in the winter than in the summer is the Great Horned Owl, so named because of the feathered tufts on its head that look like ears or horns. Being nocturnal for one thing and being busy rearing young for another creates the impression that the owls are absent in the summer. They are not. In rural areas they can most often be heard and seen around dusk especially on warmer winter days. Their low pitched but powerful hooting can be heard a long distance away.
The only other owl that it can be confused with is the crow sized Long Eared Owl (see Art. No. 35). The easiest way to tell them apart is by the pattern of the brown and white markings on the breast and belly. The Long Eared has brown streaks (stripes) that run the full length of its breast and belly; the Great Horned has the brown streaks (bars) run across the breast and belly. In other words, the Long Eared is striped; the Great Horned is barred. Locally, only the Great Horned is present in the winter.
The chicken sized Great Horned Owl is one of our largest and most powerful owls being able to take prey animals the size of skunks which they often do. (It is a good thing owls do not have a sense of smell). More than once, as a youngster on the farm, I would be in bed for the night with the windows open and hear one of our cats yowl in terror followed by silence. Even though nobody actually witnessed the event, everybody knew that one of our cats had become owl dinner. In one sense it was a bit sad but on the other hand it did keep the cat population in check. Anyway, nature is what nature is and that is about all there is to it.
Locally, Great Horned Owls start to nest as early as March utilizing previous years' crows' nests. This early start gives the young a chance to mature and learn how to become good hunters over the summer time when prey is young, not too wise and plentiful. Even so many juveniles actually starve in the winter. There have been reports of owls actually falling out of trees, dead, from lack of food. Winter is an especially difficult time for all predators.
This week's photos were taken in a rocky area of the Saguaro National Park on the outskirts of Tucson, AZ. Incidentally, this is the place where my wife's sharp eyes prevented my stepping on a four to five foot Diamond Back Rattlesnake that was stretched out on the path directly in front of me. We waited patiently as it slowly moved off. Anyway, the excellently camouflaged female owl was sitting on her nest on a ledge on a cliff while the male was sitting guard a short distance away. Males and females are the same. The birding groups we were with took great pains not to disturb the nesting owls. Our guide told us that it was to prevent the owls from abandoning their nest. I was not so sure. Great Horned Owls have been known to attack human intruders viciously leaving some severe damage around a person's head and neck. Whatever the reason it is best to keep a nesting Great Horned Owl and people apart.

John Senkiw

Foam Lake Birding No. 101


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 101
After the excitement of seeing Whooping Cranes last week the birds at the feeder seem quite ordinary, but on the other hand, the good variety of birds in our yard provides lots of interest. To date we have seen White and Red Breasted Nuthatches, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, House Finches, Pine Siskins, Chickadees, House Sparrows and two that should not be here - a Robin and a juvenile Harris Sparrow. We know that there are more winter birds to come.
Rurally, Canada, Snow and Ross's Geese are still here as are some ducks and coots. The recent blizzard does not seem to have interfered with them at all and larger bodies of water that have not yet frozen over are often full of water fowl. The upcoming heat wave will probably keep them here even longer.
One of the last of the diving ducks to migrate south is the Lesser Scaup Duck. In the summer time it is probably the most common duck to be seen on larger permanent bodies of water. Because it spends all of its time on the water, including nesting, it is seldom noticed and most people do not even know that it exists.
There are four divers (Red Head, Canvas Back, Ring Necked and Lesser Scaup) that, at a distance, look very much alike. All four ducks are whitish with dark heads, necks, breasts and tails. All four look as if somebody took a whitish duck and dipped its front and rear ends in dark paint. At close range or with binoculars the Red Head and Canvas Back can be separated quite easily because of their brownish red heads. The more similar Ring Necked can be separated from the Scaup by (1) its all black back whereas the latter has a light grey one; (2) the Ringed Neck has a black bill with a bold white ring or band around the tip while the Scaup has an all blue bill. Scaups are often called bluebills but it is not a good name as some other ducks also have blue bills.
On lakes and larger rivers matters become much more complicated as these waters harbour the extremely similar Greater Scaup Duck. The similarity is so great that only very experienced birders can tell them apart. The Greater is a little larger but only marginally so that even in a mixed flock this field mark is of no use. In good light the drake Lesser gives off purple reflection off his head, while the Greater gives off greenish ones but the differences are subtle to say the least. Experts use head shape for identification but it takes a good bit of practice to use this field mark with any confidence. The hens are an almost identical medium brown. The two Scaups could be found at the Foam Lake marsh providing some challenging practice in identification.
Although they are still quite common experts tell us that the Lesser Scaup population is plummeting for some as yet unknown reason. One explanation is that the last decade or so has been very dry resulting in lack of suitable nesting sites. Whatever the reason, hopefully, the trend is only temporary.
This week's photo of a drake Lesser Scaup was taken in a slough alongside the Dunlop road just east of town. Although they may be scarcer now they are still around.

John Senkiw

Foam Lake Birding No. 100



FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 100
It is hard to believe that this is already my hundredth article on birds. To mark the event I wanted to write about our official provincial bird emblem, the Sharp Tailed Grouse, but I have not seen one for several years plus I do not have a picture of one. Therefore, plans had to change.
As luck would have it something extraordinary happened that provided me with a topic. Two adult Whooping Cranes were reported to be feeding north of Sheho on the Invermay grid road. My wife and I drove out there for three days in a row and for all three days the Whoopers were there in the same slough. Unlike Sandhill Cranes that often feed in fields, Whoopers are pure carnivores feeding on items like crabs, crayfish and frogs (no fish),and therefore are almost always near water. I took about forty pictures but none of them turned out very sharp. The distance was in the 800 metre range and I simply did not have enough camera to get good quality shots, but good enough to positively identify the birds. In comparing size the cranes certainly dwarfed the Canada Geese scattered around them. I was lucky enough to catch the cranes "dancing" something which is usually part of the spring courtship ritual. Perhaps these two were practising for spring? Most likely they were simply releasing some pent up energy. The black wing tips do stand out and are diagnostic but are only visible when the wings are extended. For a more detailed review of the Whoopers see Article No. 35.
On the way home after the first day of viewing cranes, we saw two moose fairly close to the Trans-Canada highway between Sheho and Tuffnell so we stopped and took some pictures. The quality of the photos was much better. Even though this is a birding article I thought I would include the moose as well since their presence around here is an unusual event also, although by all accounts they seem to be getting more common.
The sighting of these two Whoopers brought to mind the very first time that I had seen them. It occurred in the spring of either 1954 or 1955 as a group of us public school kids were on our way home after school. Three large white birds with black wing tips were flying low over a field not too far off the road. By chance we had just finished studying about the plight of Whoopers in school so they were relatively easy to identify. As we watched them we discussed the field marks then continued on home as the Whoopers flew away. Of course, the next morning we reported to the teacher that we had seen Whooping Cranes. Without saying as much she absolutely did not believe us, but we persisted and created a wee bit of doubt in her mind. Without saying a word she went to the phone and phoned long distance (to the DNR as it turned out). As she talked the look of amazement that crept over her face was something to behold. The person on the other end of the line informed her that there were in fact three Whoopers in the area and that they were being monitored by the DNR. Our sighting was confirmed.
What I still find humorous about that event is that at the time the sighting was no big deal. After all, there were a reported twenty one Whoopers in total and we had seen only three, therefore there were still eighteen more out there somewhere! Now that there are about 300 Whoopers in the wild seeing just two locally is a really big deal. How age changes one's perspective on things.

John Senkiw

Foam Lake Birding No. 99



FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 99
For the last several weeks I have woken up to the honking of geese flying overhead followed shortly after by the sound of gunfire. Hunting season is definitely on. Although the game birds of fifty years ago were primarily ducks and not geese, and the number of hunters (usually unlicenced) were farm boys of whom there were many, nothing else has really changed. The annual cycle of harvesting crops and game birds starts and finishes about the same time.
This week I want to cover the smallest of our dabbling ducks, the teals. There are three teals in Canada: the Cinnamon, the Green Winged and the Blue Winged. The first occurs only in British Columbia except for the odd stray elsewhere; the latter two are very common around here. All three are closely related to the Mallard, Shoveler Widgeon and other dabblers. (Dabblers are ducks that tip up in the water when feeding). The name, teal, has no scientific meaning much like the terms dove and pigeon (see article No. 44). Similarly, through common usage the term, teal, refers only to the smallest members of the dabbling ducks. Teals do have one unique characteristic though. Except when migrating teals fly low and at high speeds making shooting them very difficult and a real challenge for hunters. Like all ducks males and females are different.
The most common and the most easily identified teal is the Blue Winged. Both sexes show off their extensive and distinctive pale blue wing patches but only when in flight. In fact the name, teal blue, is named after the colour of these wing patches. The drake also has some green at the lower edge of the blue section but this should not cause any confusion with the Green Winged Teal. At rest or when swimming the wing patches are not visible, however, the most outstanding field mark is the pure white crescent on the drake's head between the eye and the bill. No other duck has a similar field mark. Another very distinctive field mark of the drake is the pure white "hip" patch located between the tips of the wings and the tail. At rest the hen is a very nondescript mottled brown bird that can best be identified by its association with the drakes.
Blue Winged Teals are rather long distance migratory birds as far as ducks go ending up in the very southern part of the US and well into Mexico. Perhaps because of the long migration, the Blue Winged Teals are one of the last ducks to return in the spring and one of the first to leave in the fall. By the first week of September they have started to migrate and by October they are all gone south.
This week's picture was taken at the Llano Grande State Park in Texas in February when the migration north had just started. Note the head and hip markings.
Finally, a reminder that this article and all the previous articles are on my blog site: www.johnthebirder.com. Access to the site is free. On the site the pictures are in full colour and some of the older articles are updated. Also, there are more pictures on the site as it is impossible to include all the pictures in the weekly paper. For example, in this article I have included only one picture for the paper, but on the blog site there are two. The second one shows teals dabbling. As a final point the pictures on the site can be enlarged to fill the monitor for a better look. Enjoy.

John Senkiw

Foam Lake Birding No. 98



FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 98
Beautiful fall weather like the sort that we have just had these past two weeks always brings back pleasant memories from similar Octobers in times past. It is hard to imagine anything nicer especially if the crops are bountiful and successfully harvested.
Growing up on the farm I recall seeing Blue Jays coming to our yard in the fall to feed on the abundant hazelnuts around our buildings. It was quite a sight to see the large blue coloured birds climbing about the golden leafed hazelnuts. Subdued tones of blue and gold provide a pretty contrast and are pleasing to the eye. However, what interested me the most was watching Blue Jays eating Hazelnuts. One would pick a nut up in its claw, like a person using his hand, bring the nut up and peck a hole in the shell then eat the inside. The dexterity of the birds always amazed me.
The Blue Jay belongs to the corvid (crow) family that includes the crows, ravens and magpies. The jays are the most colourful members of the group and usually sport crests. There are three jays in Canada: the Stellars Jay of the Rockies, the Blue Jay east of the Rockies and the Grey Jay of the Boreal forests. The Grey Jay looks like an overblown chickadee and has no crest. The Stellars Jay is an indigo blue gradually darkening to all black on the head including the crest. The Blue Jay has medium blue wings, tail, back, top of head and crest with light grey under parts. The wings and tail have extensive white markings and the grey breast and neck are separated by a bold black neck ring. The only birds it can be confused with are the Stellars Jay and the Belted Kingfisher both of which are blue and crested, however, the differences are marked enough that there really should be no confusion. All three jays are about the size of robins with males and females being the same.
The Blue Jay is the only jay that migrates but not to any great extent. It is not uncommon to see one well into winter and outside the prairies it does not migrate at all. To more easily survive periods of severe cold and snowy weather, the Blue Jay stores food like a squirrel or chipmunk. Like these animals it carries its food in its cheeks giving it a big headed look. About ten years ago we had a Blue Jay in our backyard that spent the month of November collecting peanuts that I would put out and hiding them in various places in our yard. Later in the day I would go around and collect the stashed peanuts and put them out for the jay again. Again, the jay would take the same peanuts and hide them in the very same places where I had just collected them myself. This kept on for days until the jay failed to return one morning. I have always hoped that it decided to migrate and was not caught by a predator, but I do recall how funny the bird looked with its grossly misshapen head caused by several unshelled peanuts stuffed in its cheeks.
Jays are quite omnivorous and will eat just about anything with the exception of seeds that have no oil in them. Various oilseeds, nuts and insects are staples augmented with the eggs and young robbed from other birds' nests. Because of their predatory nature jays can become a menace to nesting songbirds
This week's picture of the Blue Jay was taken in a campground in Nova Scotia. This particular jay was very coy and would not raise its crest but I managed to get a decent picture of it anyway. The photo of the two Stellars Jays was taken at the ski resort at Mt. Lemmon just north of Tucson AZ. The temperature in Tucson was over 30C and about 30 minutes north in the mountains it was about 10C with wind - cold. What a contrast!

John Senkiw

Foam Lake Birding No. 97


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 97
During very wet years, like this year, many small streams that are usually dry by the middle of summer are still running and many have small fish in them. In the 1970s when we lived in Wishart the town was installing a storm sewer part of which was in front of our place. Before the sewer pipes could be laid and the ditch filled in, a stretch of very wet weather followed that delayed work for several weeks. That and the already wet spring resulted in the ditch becoming a stream. Our children and their friends would catch stickleback fish in this ditch and then try to "make" goldfish out of them. Sadly the sticklebacks died within a few days. Since the ditch was not connected to a stream of any kind the source of the fish was a mystery that was never solved. To make matters even more interesting one of my students brought a few sticklebacks to school that he had pulled out of a well in a bucket. Talk about the mysteries of nature.
Anyway, many of our streams and sloughs have sticklebacks in them and this attracts predators such as pelicans. This week I want to cover distant relatives of the pelicans, the cormorants. As a whole cormorants are black or nearly black chicken sized fish eating water birds that look a lot like crows when in flight. In some localities this characteristic has earned them the nickname of sea crows. When swimming they resemble black ducks and when perched they look a little like vultures. Unlike other members of the pelican family cormorants fly with their necks stretched out like a duck or goose. (To the very observant the neck has a slight crook in it.) Cormorants' feathers are not as waterproof as a duck's so after a period of diving after fish the cormorants have to dry their feathers out. They accomplish this by perching on a pole or snag facing the sun and spreading out their wings to let the sun and wind do their work. A very distant but similar looking relative, the Anhinga, also uses this technique. As a side note, in the past Japanese fishers used trained cormorants to catch fish for them. A ring was placed around the cormorant's neck with enough slack to allow the bird to breathe but snug enough to prevent the cormorant from swallowing the freshly caught fish. The fish was then retrieved and the cormorant would dive to catch another.
There are six species of cormorants in North America but only one, the Double Crested, occurs around here and only in the summer time. It is only one of two species that frequent fresh water; the rest are oceanic (pelagic). The double crests that give the species its name are barely evident only on the male and only during the breeding season. Otherwise the males and females are the same.
This week's photo was taken in Texas showing several cormorants sunning themselves on a snag although none have their wings spread out. This picture is actually of Neotropical Cormorants, the other species that frequents fresh water. For reasons that I cannot explain I do not have any pictures of Double Crested Cormorants so I decided to use the pictures of the Neotropical instead. In real life they look very much alike and in a black and white photo they look almost identical. In last week's issue of The Review the photo of Double Crested Cormorants by Sylvia Bolingbroke proves the point. (Compare her photo to the one included in this article). Check with a bird book for the differences between the two keeping in mind that the Neotropical does not occur here.

Foam Lake Birding No. 96


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 96
This past week our yard has been inundated with birds. Many of our summer residents such as Robins, Mourning Doves, Flickers, Pine Siskins, Purple Finches and Gold Finches are still here. Hairy Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers and House Sparrows, our permanent residents, have finished raising their young and are visiting our feeders. The real population explosion is in the arrival of the transients. Here is a list of the ones that we have seen in our yard so far: White Crowned Sparrows, White Throated Sparrows, Lincolns Sparrows, Harris Sparrows, Tennessee Warblers, Orange Crowned Warblers, Wilsons Warblers, Least Flycatchers, Philadelphia Vireos, Rose Breasted Grosbeaks and Ruby Crowned Kinglets. There are more to come. Since these birds are in our yard they are in everybody else's as well. For those wanting the names of birds to look for this list should be a good start.
Since hunting season is upon us I decided to cover a game bird that used to be a hunting staple in times past but not so much now - the Ruffed Grouse. Like all members of the chicken family the males and females are different but only slightly, and at a cursory glance they look the same. (Think of barnyard turkeys at any distance). The most obvious differences occur during mating season when the males start "strutting their stuff". Unlike most birds, the young develop wing feathers first and after only a few weeks are capable of short flights. (For us old-timers recall the development of chicks on the farm). When danger approaches the hen and chicks fly off in all directions confusing a would be predator. As implied, the males do not take part in raising the young. Most members of the chicken family are coloured in earth tones thus providing good camouflage.
All males of the chicken family put on an attention grabbing display - some quite spectacular. The male Ruffed Grouse picks a high spot in the forest such as a fallen tree, stump, rock or abandoned ant hill as his display stage. Here he fans his tail feathers like a turkey, fluffs out his neck feathers or ruffs (hence the name Ruffed Grouse), raises his crest, drops his wings along his sides and then proceeds to beat his wings in a dull thumping or drumming sound. The beats start out slowly and then speed up ending in a crescendo. As a youngster on the farm I thought for the longest time that it was one of our neighbours starting up his two cylinder John Deere tractor. In the country school that I attended, the ash pile from the coal furnace served as the stage from which the male would drum. Many times I would stand in the window and just watch him. It was quite a performance and I never tired of it.
Ruffed Grouse are birds of broad leaf woodlands whose populations have been reduced because of agricultural activities. This loss of habitat coupled with an approximate seven year population cycle has at times made the bird very scarce. For those living on farms with larger tracts of poplar forest nearby listen for the drumming. Drumming activity occurs twice a year - the mating displays in the spring and the young males practising in the fall.

Foam Lake Birding No. 95



FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 95
Fall frosts have arrived, and considering the year, somewhat too soon. With the shortening of days and dropping temperatures, fall migration is now proceeding in earnest. The first snow geese were seen two weeks ago and our backyard is literally teeming with small birds from the north heading south.
The last two weeks I dealt with birds that are difficult to positively identify. In keeping with that theme I decided to cover a family of birds that I have not written about before, the vireos. Vireos are inconspicuous small greenish birds often tinged with yellow that behave and look like warblers but are not related to them. There are two characteristics separating warblers from vireos that are significant to taxonomists. First, the male and female vireos are the same; warblers are not. Because vireos look so much like several warblers this field mark is not very useful to birders. Second, vireos are good songsters; warblers are not. This characteristic is useful only if one is familiar with birdsong in general. Vireos are very often mistaken for warblers with the result that many birders claim to never having seen a vireo.
A case in point is this week's featured bird, the Philadelphia Vireo, so named because of where it was first identified. In size, colour and behaviour it is very similar to several fall warblers especially the Orange Crowned and Tennessee. Colours are not very useful here as the variation within species alone can cause confusion let alone between different families (and species) altogether. To experienced birders, or those with sharp eyes, there are three subtle field marks that are useful in identifying Philadelphia Vireos. They are: first, the vireo has a stubbier and thicker or heavier beak; second, the vireo has dark flight feathers (remiges) lightly barred with white that can be seen only when the bird is perched and look like elongated dark wing tips; third, and probably the best field mark, is the white eyebrow line and a thin dark eye line starting from the beak and extending back to the ear. Some warblers and other vireos share some of these characteristics so it necessary to note all three and not just one or two.
Four species of vireos occur here, two of which nest locally and two in the Boreal Forest. Our two local breeders nest in larger tracts of woods in isolation from man, much like the Goldfinch. Interestingly, only our two northern breeders are regularly seen in town and then only in the fall and spring. To see the local nesters one has to go out to wooded rural areas. The Philadelphia Vireo is a northern breeder that is listed as being uncommon. When one takes into consideration that the bird nests where it is seldom observed, and then when it is seen it is misidentified as a warbler, its apparent scarcity is understandable. I had not identified a Philadelphia vireo until just six years ago at Point Pelee in Ontario. Since then I have seen them regularly every fall simply because I now know what I am looking for and how to identify them.
One morning this past week was an example of just that. There were a pair of Philadelphia Vireos feeding on insects in our chokecherries in our backyard and, until recently, I would have misidentified them as Tennessee Warblers and that would have been that. Not anymore.
Because vireos are not quite as active as warblers, I was able to get several good shots of the pair in our yard. The pictures did not turn out as sharp as I would have liked but they do show the aforementioned field marks. Again, to identify this bird binoculars are a must. Have fun.

Foam Lake Birding No. 94


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 94
This morning, as we were having coffee and watching three robins and a family of six flickers vying for positions on a power pole, a Coopers Hawk flew by scattering all the birds in the vicinity save for the flickers. The flickers seemed unafraid, perhaps because of their large size and powerful beaks. A Coopers Hawk could suffer some severe damage from tackling such a bird. This incident provided me with the topic for this week's article. I also realized that I had covered only one family of hawks before, the kites, which do not occur here. This oversight will be corrected right here and now.
The hawks are divided into several families each of which has its own unique characteristics. The Coopers Hawk belongs to a family of hawks called Accipiters, sometimes referred to as bird hawks. There are other individual species of hawks that prey on birds, but this is the only family of hawks to do so. Being birds of forests and woodlands, they are designed to succeed in this environment, and these adaptations can be used to identify accipiters quite easily, especially in flight. The wings are broad and short, more paddle-like than those of other hawks. The tail is long giving the accipiters a rather long tailed look. Both, the wings and tail, are designed to help the hawk fly with great speed and agility through dense woods in pursuit of prey birds. The easiest way to identify this family is by its flight pattern of four (usually) quick flaps of its wings followed by a short and swift glide. When one comes flying by small birds literally dive for cover.
There are three species in the accipiter family: the chicken sized Goshawk, the crow sized Coopers Hawk and the robin sized Sharp Shinned Hawk. The Goshawk (goose hawk) is a bird of larger forests, but in the fall and winter can occasionally be seen locally. The Sharp Shinned is the most common of the three and often comes into town to catch birds at feeders. Several years ago a Sharp Shinned made a catch and ate the bird right under our Chokecherry trees. Its close cousin, the Coopers Hawk, was the bird that liked to prey on young chickens in farmers' yards thus earning the nickname of chicken hawk. Unfortunately, the Coopers Hawk gave all hawks a bad reputation resulting in indiscriminate shooting of all hawks. Thankfully, killing any hawk at any time, except to protect livestock, is illegal now.
Like most hawks the males and females are the same, and like all hawks the females are larger and more powerful than the males. In this last regard. hawks are the exception as the males are usually larger than females in the animal world. Sharp Shinned Hawks were the most populous of the three, but it appears that the Cooper is now gaining ground and seems to be on par with the Sharp Shinned.
All three accipiters are very similar, but the Coopers and Sharp Shinned are almost identical. Furthermore, a large female Sharp Shinned and a small male Coopers are almost the same size thus adding to the confusion. There are differences but they are very subtle and require a sharp and practised eye to discern them. In this piece I will deal with only one, and what I consider the best, field mark that is useful in identifying a perched bird. The Coopers Hawk has a rather dark cap while the Sharp Shinned's head is all grey. Binoculars are a must, For a full discussion on field marks for these two hawks refer to a good bird book.
This week's photo is of a juvenile Coopers Hawk taken in California where they are common. A juvenile is brown and white with brown stripes on a white breast and belly. The adult has orange bars on a white breast and belly, a handsome bird.
On a final note, I want to point out that the grosbeaks in the 92nd article were mislabelled. The Rose Breasted Grosbeak was labelled as the Black Headed and vice versa. The names should have been reversed. Hopefully this clears up any confusion.

Foam Lake Birding No. 93


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 93
Autumn is a good time to watch warblers, particularly juveniles. As mentioned in the last article , it is also the time of year when it is very difficult to positively identify them. In many cases colours alone are not enough and behaviour and/or a process of elimination has to be used.
First one has to determine whether the bird being observed is a finch, grosbeak, sparrow, flycatcher, warbler and so on. Once this is determined then identification is easier but not necessarily easy.
This week's featured bird, the Orange Crowned Warbler, is a case in point. When it comes to a bird with the fewest field marks, this one takes the prize. The whole top side from the beak to the tail tip is a dull yellowish olive grey; the underside is much the same but a little paler. There may be a faint eye stripe and possibly even fainter wing bars. When observing a bird in the outdoors with the presence of light and shadow these field marks are all but useless. With binoculars in good light, the faint breast stripes and yellow under tail coverts are noticeable and useful in identification. Overall, with this bird drab is in.
As its name implies, it does have an extensive orange patch on its fore head. The problem is that the patch is almost never visible even on a windy day. Several years ago I saw one in Texas taking a bath. When its feathers got wet the orange patch was clearly visible. I took pictures of this warbler before and during its bath, but only the first pictures turned out. One of these photos is used in this piece. The shots that showed its orange fore head were of such poor quality that I could not use any of them.
Another fall warbler that is very similar to the Orange Crowned is the Tennessee Warbler. (See article No. 15). There are two differences but they do not really stand out and binoculars are almost mandatory. First, the Tennessee has a faint whitish eyebrow stripe that is always present; the Orange Crowned does not. Second, the Tennessee has white under tail coverts; the Orange Crowned has yellow ones. One ornithologist stated that in identifying the Orange Crowned Warbler ask yourself, "why is it not an Orange Crowned Warbler?" In other words once all other birds have been eliminated what is left must be the Orange Crowned.
This morning, Sept. 8, there were three Orange Crowned Warblers picking insects off our Chokecherry trees. One warbler was actually taking a bath by flitting among the wet leaves then fluffing out its feathers and fluttering its wings in the same way birds do at a bird bath. This is the first time that I ever witnessed such an event. Even in full living colour Orange Crowns are very drab and hard to identify; in black and white pictures it is even worse. Have fun with this one.

Foam Lake Birding No. 92



FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 92
Most transient birds are best seen in the spring, but there are a few that are more numerous in the fall. A few such birds are: Nashville Warblers, Orange Crowned Warblers, Yellow Rumped (Myrtle) Warblers, Oven Birds and Rose Breasted Grosbeaks. Though more colourful in the spring and easier to identify, part of the charm of fall bird watching is trying to identify juveniles and adults in fall plumage. While difficult, with practice it can be done and it certainly sharpens one's identification skills in the process.
This week I am introducing a new family of birds, the grosbeaks. Related to sparrows and finches they have, as the name implies, large beaks attached to powerful muscles with which to crack hard seeds especially from evergreens. Like their cousins, grosbeaks will visit feeders making short work of the food offered them. For example, a flock of Evening Grosbeaks will consume a litre of sunflower seeds in a few minutes. Rationing is essential.
It should be noted that the Pine Grosbeaks that I mentioned in Article No. 66 are not grosbeaks at all, but finches. Why the misnomer? Well, grosbeaks are generally larger than finches and have larger and more massive bills. Our largest finch, the Pine Grosbeak, looked more like a grosbeak than a finch and was so named. Properly, its name should be Pine Finch. Perhaps ornithologists will change it like they have changed so many other names in the last few decades. Some examples are: Rock Dove is now Rock Pigeon (the common pigeon seen around elevators); The Upland Plover is now the Upland Sandpiper; the Canada Jay is now the Grey Jay and so on. Time will tell.
The first grosbeak chosen for these articles is the beautiful Rose Breasted Grosbeak that normally nests in the boreal forests of North America and seen here only in the spring and fall. However, with many plantings of evergreen shelterbelts some have started to nest locally. In the spring the males, with their black and white tuxedo-like plumage set off by bright rose coloured bibs, are simply stunning. This is one of only a few birds that is much more beautiful in real life than in a painting or photo. The females are brown overall with white markings and a distinctive broad white stripe that runs lengthwise along the side of the head just above the eye. Except for size (between that of a sparrow and robin) and a more massive bill, the females can easily be mistaken for female Purple Finches. They look like big and small versions of the same bird.
In the fall the male Rose Breasted Grosbeak's colours are much more subdued but the bird is still easily identified. The rose bib is paler and the solid black head has the white stripe of the female. The females do not change colours in the fall and the young are much like the females with the young males showing some slight differences. The juvenile males will usually, but not always, show a little pink on the throat where the rose bib will eventually be. The best field mark to separate juvenile males from females is the pink under wing linings that all males have and that are very apparent in flight.
The Rose Breasted Grosbeak occurs from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains where it is replaced westward by its very close relative the Black Headed Grosbeak. Where their ranges overlap they hybridize freely producing viable offspring. For that reason some taxonomists believe the two to be one species with two distinctive races. At present they are still considered two different species.
Every few years a family group of the current year's hatch spends a day or two in our, and our neighbours', yards. This fall is one of those years. This week's photos are of a Rose Breasted Grosbeak taken in our backyard in the fall, and a Black Headed Grosbeak taken in the Cayumaca State Park in California. The fall male Rose Breasted clearly shows the striped head of the female. A few years back a male Black Headed Grosbeak spent a couple of days in our neighbourhood in spring. It was rewarding seeing a stray so far from its normal range. Too bad that I did not have a camera back then.

Foam Lake Birding No. 91


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 91
Even though it might seem a bit early, it is getting to that time of year when some of our summer birds are starting to head south. Two such birds are the Purple Martin and the Yellow Warbler. Because of variable nesting times, some colonies of Purple Martins will be seen for a while yet, but the ones that nested in our yard are gone already. On the other hand, adult Yellow Warblers are gone leaving behind some juveniles to put on some more weight in order to make the flight south. It is kind of sad to see our summer residents leaving already, but on the bright side the Goldfinches are in the middle of raising their young.
Now, to answer last week's question. The two birds on the extreme right and left are Willets; the other three are Marbled Godwits. The Willets have straight and shorter bills; the Godwits have longer and slightly up curved (recursive) bills. The Willet on the left has faint traces of the black and white wing pattern just showing on the lower edge of its wing. In a colour picture the Willets are grey; the Godwits are brownish. One Godwit is partially hidden by the Willet on the left with the upraised wings.
With all the water around it is only fitting that I feature a duck in this article. The one I have chosen is the American Widgeon, formerly known as the Baldpate. Why this one? Next to the Mallard, it is probably the most plentiful duck on our sloughs in the fall.
As with all ducks, males and females are different. The female looks much like a female Mallard and even quacks like one. The male, with its green eye stripe, resembles a male Green Winged Teal and is often mistaken for one. However, the male Widgeon has a greyish head while the male Green Winged Teal has a deep rich brown one. The best field mark by which the male Widgeon can be quite easily identified is the white, sometimes cream, forehead and crown, hence the former name of Baldpate. Both males and females have extensive white wing patches (speculum) and white bellies. To this day hunters often refer to them as white bellies.
This week's photo was taken at the Batiquitos Lagoon in Carlsbad, CA. The photo shows a female and a male in the mud at low tide. The male is stretching out his one wing showing the white wing patch, and both ducks clearly show their white bellies. In a colour photo the male's green eye stripe is clearly visible.
I was recently asked (again) why I take so many pictures of local birds in such far away places. The answer is simple. I take pictures wherever I can get them. Many birds, water birds in particular, are very skittish on their breeding grounds in the summer time. They are very wary of anything that can threaten them and their young. For that reason, as a photographer, I have a difficult time getting good photos of water and shore birds locally, which means the summer time. Generally, I end up taking a hurried shot of a bird rushing for cover. The result is that only a few shots are taken and many of those are out of focus. In California and Texas, just to name a couple of places, the same birds are found in nature preserves where they quickly lose fear of man and can be easily approached up close for extended periods of time. This makes picture taking a breeze. As a result, I have managed to get many excellent pictures of local water and shore birds on their wintering grounds. I hope readers get as much enjoyment of looking at them as I have in taking them.

Foam Lake Birding No. 90


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 90
Even though the weather has not been the best and I should be featuring some local bird, I would be remiss in not writing about the occurrence of the Magnificent Frigatebird at Fishing Lake this past July. I have seen many frigatebirds on both coasts in central Mexico, but to have seen one in Saskatchewan would have been something else. There is a better chance of seeing a full solar eclipse here (and with more predictability) than a reoccurrence of another frigatebird.
Frigatebirds (there are five species worldwide) are related to pelicans and cormorants, but behave more like gulls than anything else. Like pelicans and cormorants they are fish eating birds that have four toes joined by webbing, but have little else in common. Like gulls and terns, frigatebirds like to steal food from other birds, ironically from gulls and terns. Their speed and agility make piracy possible. Contrary to what has been written in some articles, frigatebirds feed themselves primarily by flying low over the water and plucking fish, turtles, jellyfish and birds on or near the surface - at least according to the Sibley and Smithsonian field guides. Though seemingly capable of swimming they never do, preferring to rest on trees, poles and so on.
The Magnificent Frigatebird, meaning: the Great War Vessel, is a goose sized bird that is mostly wings and tail. The body is actually quite small. Although it is about forty inches long and has a ninety inch (over seven feet) long wing span it is only about three pounds in weight, about the same as a good sized mallard. In fact it has the longest wing span in proportion to body weight of any bird in the world thus making it a buoyant and tireless flier. The tail is forked, but this can only be seen when the bird brakes in the air, otherwise, it is folded into a point. They are known wanderers having been recorded as far inland as Colorado and as far north as Newfoundland now, as far inland and as far north as Fishing Lake, Saskatchewan.
The colours are also quite distinctive. Unlike most of its relatives, the males and females are different. The males are all black save for a bare red throat that can be greatly inflated during breeding season; the females, like the one seen at Fishing Lake, are all black with a white breast; the juveniles are all black with a white head and breast. The juveniles change little for three years after which the males and females start to differentiate. Then, it takes at least two more years before they reach maturity. In one article about the Fishing Lake sighting, the writer speculates that the bird must have been a youngster that got lost somehow. However, according to the experts, this bird must have been at least five years old - hardly a beginner. Why would an adult stray so far from the tropics? Did it have an unhappy childhood? Nobody knows why it strayed, but everybody is sure glad it did.
Since I do not have a picture of a Magnificent Frigatebird, I decided to do a "minor feature" of a bird that is very common around here, especially in the spring. The Willet, formerly known as the Western Willet, is a crow sized, grey wading bird with a long, stout, straight, black bill. When wading the shallows it can only be described as nondescript. However, when it takes flight its field marks are diagnostic. The wings are a sharply defined black and white running the full length of both surfaces of the wing. In addition, its vocalization in flight is a loud and unmistakeable "pill will willet". When it lands it tends to keep its striped wings upraised for a second or two giving a viewer a second and better look. In summary: in flight, the bird is easy to identify; on the ground, not so much.
Getting this week's picture was a story unto itself. While birding in the San Elijo lagoon in California, I watched a small flock of Willets feeding on either side of a lagoon creek during low tide. Every few minutes a Willet or two would fly from one side to the other with their distinctive wing patterns begging for a picture. I would focus the camera on a calculated (guessed at) landing spot and hope for the bird to land there and to hold its wings upright long enough for me to get a picture. I suffered "umpteen" disappointments, but I did manage to get two good photos and decided to use the one with two birds in it. (Two is better than one?) In addition, there are two other Willets and three Marbled Godwits in the photo. Try to identify them. Answers in the next article.

Foam Lake Birding No. 89



FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 89
The weather finally seems to have improved, at least for the time being. Now that I can go outside and actually spend some time there, I took a count of the birds nesting in our yard and there are nine, yes nine, different species of birds nesting in our yard. In alphabetical order they are: Brewer's Blackbird, Brown Headed Cowbird, Chipping Sparrow, House Sparrow, House Wren, Purple Martin, Robin, Tree Swallow and Yellow Warbler. Although, the Cowbird is a parasite and does not nest at all, I spotted several females searching through the shrubbery looking for other birds' nests to lay their eggs in. I, therefore, included it in the list.
In addition to the one's actually nesting in our yard, there are at least five others nesting within 100 metres of our yard. They are: Common Grackle, Gray Catbird, Killdeer, Mourning Dove and Pine Siskin. There easily could be others such as Purple Finch, House Finch and Barn Swallow.
This week I am covering the most common wood warbler in Canada, the Yellow Warbler. At the moment a pair is nesting in our clematis vines along the house. They sure are busy. Several times there has been a flurry of excitement when a female Cowbird showed up. The warblers attacked and chased the Cowbird away. However there are times when the warblers are away from the nest providing an opportunity for the Cowbird to slip in and lay her egg for the warblers to hatch and raise her young. Yellow Warblers will seldom rear a Cowbird. Rather, they simply build another nest right over top of the old one, eggs and all. Growing up on the farm, I used to go around to small birds' nests and throw out the Cowbirds' eggs. I do not know if the parasitized birds appreciated my efforts or not. Also, if a Yellow Warbler's nest is disturbed, the warblers will abandon the nest and build a new one elsewhere. This is not at all uncommon among birds in general, but what is unusual is that the Yellow Warbler will dismantle the old nest and use the material to build the new one. What is even more remarkable is this is accomplished within a couple of days. This is exactly what happened the last time the warblers built a nest in our yard. The nest was in a cranberry too close to the BBQ and the constant disturbance forced them to leave, nest and all.
The majority of warblers have at least some yellow on them but only the Yellow Warbler is literally all yellow leading it to be erroneously called a Canary sometimes. The males have been described as a lemon with wings. The male also has quite noticeable red striping on its breast. The female is a much subdued version of the male. The breast and belly are a dull yellow while the top side is a dull yellowish green.
There are many warblers that can be seen in one's yard, but the Yellow is the only one that seems to like being in close proximity to man to the point that it will even nest there. For example, this year a pair of Yellow Warblers have built a nest in the vines that are just outside our bedroom window. Not only do they provide enjoyment during the day but the birdsong in the morning is pleasant to wake up to.
This week's pictures were taken of the nesting pair that I have just covered. One photo is of the pair sunning themselves in the morning with the female preening herself and the male "standing guard". The other picture is of the male on our satellite dish defending his territory against other intruding male Yellow Warblers. Several times we observed two males fighting in elfin fury with one finally giving in and fleeing. I never was able to figure out whether the intruder won or not.

Foam Lake Birding No. 88


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 88
On a cold, damp and dreary day on May 26, I had the pleasure of guiding a group of birders from the Yellowhead Flyway Birding Trail Association (YFBTA), centred out of Saltcoats, to some birding hotspots around Foam Lake. The main thrust was to go birding at the Foam Lake Marsh, however, because of the very wet spring and the reconstruction of highway 310, roads to the marsh were impassable. This was unfortunate as the marsh is an internationally acclaimed site renown as a staging area for migrating waterfowl. Instead, we went to various local places and still had a very successful outing.
Our highlight occurred at what locals call the Fedak Slough located along the Yellowhead Highway just across from the Margo grid. This is one of my favourite birding hotspots and many of my pictures of water and marsh birds have been taken there.
The said highlight was the sighting of an American Bittern. Usually one sees a Bittern in a marsh, but this one was in a grassy area covered with Golden Peas (Buffalo Beans to us old timers) along side a road. It stood in its classic pose with neck outstretched and bill pointed skyward in order to camouflage itself. This pose works well in a reedy marsh but not so much in a grassy flat. To top it off, it was very cooperative and let us approach it up close making it possible to take many good pictures, one of which is included in this article.
The Bittern is a long legged chicken sized bird wading bird that is a member of the heron family. The only two other herons one could reasonably expect to see around here are the same sized Black Crowned Night Heron and the much larger Great Blue Heron. Both are quite common in any given year. The male and female Bittern, like all herons, are the same.
Prior to the 1970s the Bittern was very common when suddenly its population started to decline dramatically across North America. Every evening and night all summer long one could hear the strange hollow pumping sounds of "oonk a choonk" repeated up to seven times followed by a brief break only to be repeated again. This vocalization gave rise to several nicknames such as Thunder Pump and Slough Pump. The very wet 1950s (much like now - at least where I grew up) were paradise years for water birds including Bitterns. Who knows? Maybe with the present wet weather their numbers will rebound.
At the same time as the Bittern populations started to decline the frog and toad populations suddenly crashed world wide. It appears there is some sort of fungal disease that is killing amphibians indiscriminately. Are the two events connected? After all, the Bittern's main food source is frogs. Incidentally, I just saw my first frog in our yard since I don't know when. When I was growing up on the farm the chorus of frogs and toads at night was almost deafening, and our yard was literally hopping with them. I have seen the odd frog here and there, but I have not seen a toad in years. Hopefully the two, along with the bittern will recover.
I have not heard a Bittern's "pumping " since the 1960s. Too bad. Maybe, just maybe, I might hear it again someday soon.

Foam Lake Birding No. 87


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 87
It appears that we are finally going to get some sunny weather. It is a little late to do much good for farmers this year but perhaps it will help in some way next year. As difficult as this weather has been for humans, the luxuriant plant growth and abundant insect life has been a bonanza for birds of all stripes. Food, water, shelter and nesting sites abound. This year our yard has been particularly active with more birds and more species than usual.
In article No. 78 from Texas, I discussed a group of birds called mimids focussing on thrashers. Mimids are so called because they like to mimic sounds that they hear around them. In reality, only one mimid, the Mocking Bird, does so to any great extent. Another one, the Gray Catbird, will mimic other bird sounds occasionally but not often nor well.
There are four mimids that occur in Saskatchewan. Two, the Gray Catbird and Brown Thrasher, are common; one, the Sage Thrasher, is found in only one place in a sage flat near the American border south of the Cypress Hills; the Mockingbird, a very rare vagrant, can occur just about anywhere.
In this article I want to cover the only mimid that can be expected in our yards around here - the Gray Catbird or simply Catbird. It is an even dark grey overall with a black cap, chestnut under tail coverts and beady black eyes. In size, it ranges about midway between a sparrow and a Robin. In flight the long tailed body exhibits a slight sinuous motion (the body moves somewhat like a crawling worm) that usually only Cuckoos exhibit.
The easiest way to identify the bird even before it is seen is by its distress sound - a kitten like mewing after which the bird is named. This is its way of sounding an alarm that an intruder is nearby. As youngsters we knew we were near a nest when we heard the mewing sound. Incidentally, the nest is in thickets fairly low to the ground and the eggs are bright blue like a Robin's. When angry the Catbird scolds with a rather harsh squawking/screeching sound. Two years ago when I was picking pincherries in our yard, a catbird did not like what I was doing and proceeded to "chew me out" from only a metre or so away. About fifteen minutes later it gave up, thankfully, and left. During mating season, the male will sit on an exposed perch and sing a pleasant song quite similar to that of a Robin. I have heard this song since childhood, therefore, I do not believe the Catbird was mimicking a Robin.
This week's picture was taken this spring in our backyard. The bird has been around all spring warning, scolding and singing in our and our neighbours' yards. It must be nesting somewhere nearby.

Foam Lake Birding No. 86



FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 86
Will the rain never stop? It seems that the sun barely comes up before we are deluged again. Shades of the mid 1950s. The constant rains are not good news for farmers but the grass, trees and shrubs are luxuriant. The birds, especially waterfowl, are thriving.
This week I will finally finish the last article on attracting birds to our yards. As much as food and water can and do attract birds, appropriate plantings of grasses, flowers, shrubs and trees can dramatically increase the numbers of birds visiting one's yard. If and when the decision is made to attract birds with plants then three basic questions have to be considered: how many plants, what kinds of plants and where should they be planted.
Also, two different kinds of yards have to be taken into consideration - farm and urban. What works for one will work for the other with one major difference - farms are bigger. Farm yards have a more or less unlimited area whereas town yards are quite restricted. A farmstead built on an open field and then surrounded by a perimeter of trees does provide shelter but does not really attract wildlife to any degree. Farm yards with a few acres of natural bush, enhanced by plantings, near buildings really shine. This arrangement attracts not only more birds, but a greater variety of species that would not normally be seen otherwise. In urban areas space is limited and plants have to be chosen carefully.
How many plants should one plant? There is no magic number, but most yards could easily sustain more plants than they usually do. It does take more work, though. Large expanses of lawn studded with a few large trees have a lot of appeal to humans but offer very little for birds. Gardens, including fields, are a little better than lawns but not much. Something else is needed.
Because of our history of European immigration, many of our decorative plants such a lilac, carragana, cotoneaster and Siberian Elm are imports. Native species were not only ignored but removed and replaced with the foreign ones. However, many of our small native fruit trees such as chokecherry, pincherry, saskatoon, hawthorne and highbush cranberry are not only as attractive as the foreign ones but provide nesting sites and food for birds (and man) as well. In Europe, forests have much less undergrowth than the forests in the Americas, and this "ideal" has been carried over from Europe to the new world where it has stuck and stubbornly refused to die. To this day most people treat underbrush as weeds and eliminate it whenever possible preferring large show trees with little or no undergrowth. Incidentally, the word "underbrush" was coined in the new world to describe something that did not exist in the old world - dense undergrowth. In addition to woody plants, domesticated varieties of annuals, perennials and grasses should be included in one's yard plans.
How does one achieve this? It is completely unrealistic to expect somebody to cover the whole yard with trees and brush without gardens and lawns. Birds and people have to coexist; lawns will be maintained and gardens will be planted. However, around the outside edges of yards and along buildings there usually are so called 'dead spots". Small fruit bearing trees and shrubs, such as currants, can be planted here. If at all possible, shrubbery should be planted as thickly as possible to form thickets which our North American birds must have if they are to breed. Examples of a few such birds are Cedar Waxwings, sparrows, warblers and wrens.
To cover a topic of this nature thoroughly would require a small magazine, so this article has been an overview only. For a more thorough discussion check with the Canadian Wildlife Federation and related organizations.
This week's photos are of a robin eating overwintering chokecherries this spring and of a pair of Pine Siskins feeding on Joe Pye Weed (domesticated milkweed) and domestic thistle last August. If nothing else, they do make nice pictures.

Foam Lake Birding No. 85



FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 85
Last week I implied that I would write the last article in a series about attracting birds to one's back yard. However, the weather, bad as it was, made me change my mind. Rather, I will segue from last week's article into this week's by writing about orioles instead. The orioles seem to be late in arriving so feeding them now might be timely.
There are eight species of orioles in North America, five of which are common to the USA and three to Canada. The common one in Saskatchewan is the Baltimore Oriole which is about halfway between a sparrow and robin in size. This striking orange bird with black head, back, tail and wings is named after one of North America's first British colonizers, Lord Baltimore, whose titular colours were orange and black.
(His first settlement, Ferryland, (in present day Newfoundland) failed because of British wars with the French and Dutch which resulted in raids on the colony. Because of the uncertainty and fear of further raids, Lord Baltimore then resettled farther south in more stable British territory at what is now the present day city of Baltimore, USA. The settlement in Newfoundland is presently being excavated and preserved as part of Canada's heritage. Guided tours are provided and a look is well worth it.)
The common oriole of the Rocky Mountain region is the Bullock's Oriole, a close relative of the Baltimore Oriole. Both are very similar with the major difference being that the Bullock's black head has an orange face with a black line through the eye, while the Baltimore's head is all black. The two orioles also have slightly different vocalizations. For those of you who have older bird books, take note that these two orioles were previously lumped into one species, the Northern Oriole. Interestingly, these birds had previously been split, then combined, and then recently split into two species again. Do not be surprised if the two are recombined.
The third oriole, the Orchard Oriole, is like a slender version of the Baltimore except that the orange is replaced by a brick red/chestnut colour. The reddish colour does not stand out and in poor light the bird looks all dark much like a blackbird. The Orchard oriole is very common in southern Ontario and adjacent areas. Like all orioles, the females are much duller version of the males.
Orioles are the most colourful members of the blackbird family usually being orange and black although the orange is sometimes replaced by yellow, as in the Scot's Oriole pictured last week. Other than their bright colours, orioles are known for building their pendulous basketlike nests high in mature trees. Some orioles build nests several feet long although the Baltimore's nest is only about six inches deep. As kids we used to get a kick out of hanging out short pieces of coloured yarn for the orioles to use in nest building. We were never disappointed and the nests were colourful to say the least, and easy to find. We would then climb, very carefully, to these high altitude nests to peek inside and look at the white eggs streaked randomly with fine brown lines. Orioles will nest near people but they must have tall mature trees.
This week's pictures show a male Baltimore Oriole in our backyard. Like the lemon yellow Scot's Oriole featured last week, the orange Baltimore Oriole also likes grapefruit and grape jelly. However, there is only about a three week window in the spring in which to attract these birds after which nesting starts and the orioles stay away. I have not seen any orioles this year, yet, but hopefully my grapefruits attract them.

Foam Lake Birding No. 84




FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 84
All of our summer residents have arrived and are beginning to start the cycle of raising another generation of their own species. These last arrivals include swallows, hummingbirds, warblers, wrens and Chipping Sparrows to name a few. These latecomers arrive at approximately the same time as the trees go into full leaf. All a birder has to do is to watch for the leaves and then the birds themselves. At the same time, all the spring transients have left for the far north to start their breeding cycle.
This week I am writing the second last article ("penultimate" for you word lovers) in a series of discussions about attracting birds to one's yard by providing food and water. I have written about feeders for seeds, nuts, peanut butter, suet and so on; many of which require some effort to put up. At this time of year, once the frosts are over, sugar based foods can be offered. (It is a good thing birds do not have teeth or else dentists would get excited). The feeders and the food are probably the cheapest and easiest to maintain.
There are three general or common kinds of sugar based bird food: 1). citrus fruit, 2). grape jelly, 3). sugar water (nectar). First, citrus (grapefruit and oranges only) are the easiest to prepare and set out. Simply cut the fruit at the equator and set the halves out on a piece of broken branch so that the fruit is positioned at about the same angle as a satellite dish. If there are no suitable broken branches, then drive a nail (large headed is best) into a branch and hang it on that. The nail can be pulled out later with no damage to the tree. Second, grape jelly can be put out in a small tin (tuna fish tin is almost perfect) in a tree secured with wire to provide stability. A word of caution here: use jelly, as in jam, and not the rubbery fruit flavoured dessert that little kids love. The dessert will not work. Both citrus and jelly need to be offered for only several weeks in the spring and right now is the perfect time to do so. After that the birds quit coming and the food becomes an attraction for insects, particularly ants. Third, sugar water or nectar is familiar to just about everybody. All sorts of feeders are available commercially and some can even be made at home. Commercially prepared nectar can be purchased at stores or made at home much more cheaply by simply dissolving one part sugar into four parts water and bringing to a boil. Boiling does not change the sugar but it does cause the nectar to become clear and the solution seems to last longer without the sugar settling out. Sugar water always reminds me of an incident that occurred in Saskatoon in one of the large box stores. A couple came up to me and asked if I knew where the hummingbird food was. Knowing that it was sold out, I informed them so, and then, to be helpful I suggested they make their own as I have just outlined. My mistake. The gentleman gave me a very stern lecture about the evils of sugar and that my concoction would cause great harm to the birds and that I should use only commercially prepared product. I did not reply as I did not think that pointing out to him that the sugar that one buys (white, dark or hummingbird mix), sugar in a beet or cane, sugar in a beehive or sugar in a flower is all the same - sucrose. (Citrus provides a fruit sugar called fructose). I went home and made my own.
Which birds can be attracted to what? Various warblers, especially Orange Crowned and Tennessee Warblers, orioles and some woodpeckers are attracted to citrus. Tennessee Warblers, but especially orioles, are readily attracted to grape jelly. As of this writing none of the aforementioned birds have come to my feeders this spring, yet. Here's hoping. The nectar feeders are really designed for hummingbirds only. Older models were not selective enough and larger birds like orioles would help themselves draining a feeder quite quickly. Newer models come with a weight sensitive perch that behaves like a teeter totter. The very light hummingbirds do not cause the perch to go down, but the larger birds do, causing a trap door to close off the nectar thus preventing them from drinking. Incidentally, larger versions of hummingbird feeders especially for orioles are available. Insects are a problem with sugar feeders. Wasps, bees and flies do not seem to be too much of a problem as the birds simple chase them away and then feed. Ants are another matter. They come in such large numbers that birds get discouraged. Citrus and jelly might have to be moved around thus delaying ant infestation. Hummingbird feeders now come with an ant barrier. Midway between the feeder and the point where the feeder is suspended a small pan of water is placed. Ants will not cross water so cannot get to the feeder. These commercially prepared ant barriers are simple in design, cheap and effective. Every hummingbird feeder should have one.
This week's photos are of a Tennessee Warbler feeding on half a grapefruit in our backyard; A rare Violet Crowned Hummingbird (white belly) and the common Broad Billed Hummingbird at a feeder in southern Arizona; and a Scot's Oriole sizing up a grapefruit in southern Arizona. The Scot's Oriole really did favour the grape jelly, but I did not get a shot of that. Our local orioles and hummingbirds will do the same.

Foam Lake Birding No. 83



FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 83
With the cold, wet and snowy weather that we have been having lately it is a wonder that any more birds have arrived at all, but they have. Purple Martins, Ruby Crowned Kinglets, Goldfinches, Mourning Doves, Ring Billed Gulls and Franklin's Gulls are just to name a few. Of all the birds listed, only the Purple Martins would have difficulty getting through this last week of snow and rain. Purple Martins feed solely on flying insects that are caught in flight. Because there are no flying insects out right now, I have no idea what the Martins do to survive. Do they temporarily move some place warmer? Do they actually go out and eat something else? Perhaps, they go into a kind of temporary hibernation or torpor which would allow them to last a long time with very little food requirements as some birds and animals do? However, survive they do. This would be a good topic for those inclined to research such things.
In last week's column I mentioned several ways in which birds modified their diets in order to survive the arrival of unexpectedly severe weather. This week I want to describe a scenario in which some birds managed to use the bad weather to not only survive, but to thrive. The heavy rains and snow forced the earthworms to come to the surface in order to avoid drowning. Lawns were vacated by the worms because there was too much water being retained by the grass. Thus they ended up on hard surface areas like driveways, sidewalks and streets. This provided a real bonanza (buffet and all) for Grackles, Robins and Franklin's Gulls. The Grackles and Robins picked worms here and there, but the gulls were much more organized and thorough. A small flock of Franklin's
Gulls landed on the street in front of our house and proceeded to "sweep" the area clean. However, there was a problem. The birds at the back of the flock would have only "leftovers" from the birds at the front. To make sure every bird got its fair share the birds at the back would periodically fly to the front of the line for good pickings. A good system and quite interesting to watch.
Not only do birds survive bad weather, but some are well into nest building. House Sparrows and Grackles are continually picking up nesting material and hauling it to their chosen sites. The Grackles are building their nest in a spruce tree in our neighbour's yard; the sparrows are building theirs in a birdhouse in our yard. One day I was particularly amused by a male House Sparrow trying to get a two foot strip of plastic to the birdhouse. The drag caused by so large an object forced the sparrow to expend a great deal of time and energy. Its flight was slow and laboured, but eventually it succeeded. Why this sparrow would want this strip is beyond me.
This week's photos show a Robin picking up earthworms on the edge of our driveway. Its head is blurred because it was shaking the worm as I snapped the picture. The other photo is of a small flock of Franklin's Gulls feeding on the snowy street in front of our house.

Foam Lake Birding No. 82





FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 82
I am back. Nothing newsworthy in that, but there are two things from Texas that I do want to mention. Recently, we took some friends from Foam Lake on a nature hike in Llano Grande nature preserve and the main item on the list was to see an alligator or two that live there. We did see one huge one sunning himself, but my first highlight was seeing four Roseate Spoonbills feeding in the shallows. These rosy, goose-sized waders with their spoon shaped bills were quite spectacular, at least to me. I wanted to show our friends the Paraque that I wrote about in Article No. 76. This same bird had been roosting there for the past several years and was a sure thing. My second highlight, sadly, was seeing only a pile of Paraque feathers where the bird normally roosted. It seems that it became lunch for some predator. I hope it got a stomach ache.
Since coming back, I have enjoyed seeing our northern birds. Because of the unusually warm weather, some summer birds such as Robins, Flickers and Grackles are back early. When the weather recently took a turn for the worse, all three of these birds were in our backyard eating last year’s chokecherries that were still hanging on the trees. The seed eaters such as Juncos, Purple Finches and Siskins are making good use of our feeders. In the last few days Goldfinches and White Throated Sparrows have arrived. There will be more to come.
For this week I want to cover a bird that only occasionally can be found in a backyard, but one that just about everybody knows – the Killdeer. The Killdeer is a Robin-sized wading bird that spends a lot of time far from water. Its physical characteristics are such that one can easily identify the bird by sight alone and without binoculars. A wader with a brown head, back and tail and a white neck, breast and belly topped off with two very distinct black throat stripes or bands is the Killdeer. More often than not the Killdeer can be identified by its call before it is seen. Its clear and far carrying call of “killdeer” is distinctive. It can literally be heard any time of day or night and I have often heard it calling at night as it is flying overhead. Why it flies at night is hard to say. The males and females are the same.
It is even a more interesting bird once it starts nesting. It nests quite some distance from water and often in newly tilled fields or gardens. Being rather confiding it will even nest in towns. When I was on the farm, it was an annual spring ritual, during seeding, to keep moving Killdeers’ nests in order to avoid destroying them with machinery. The Killdeer always accepted the eggs in a new location in a man made nest. Whenever danger comes close, the female runs off the nest and pretends to have a broken wing thus leading the predator away. At this time the orange tail is clearly visible. Once the predator has been successfully led a safe distance away, the Killdeer makes a miraculous recovery and flies away leaving a confused predator behind. The young are precocial (they can run around and feed themselves shortly after hatching) and look just like their parents except with only one throat band. As kids, we used to monitor Killdeers’ nests and play with the newly hatched young before they left for the nearest slough. They certainly are cute and cuddly.
The Killdeer belongs to a world wide family of wading birds called plover of which five can be found in Saskatchewan. Two of them, the Killdeer and the rare Piping Plover, nest here; three of them, Black Bellied, Golden and Semipalmated are transients and best seen in the spring.
Even though Killdeer are common here the first picture was taken at Llano Grande nature preserve in Texas in February. The other three photos were taken of a nesting Killdeer in our neighbour's yard across the street. She certainly put on a show with her broken wing routine.

Foam Lake Birding No. 81


FOAM LAKE BIRDING
No. 81
This is the last article from Texas for this winter as we should be home a week from the time of this writing. Then, it will be back to spring transients and early summer arrivals. I am looking forward to that.
This was a good winter for birding but not exceptional. Last week we went on a late evening nature hike to observe owls. We did not see any, but we did see our first scorpions and tarantulas. Scorpions climb trees at night looking for food. Here, a flashlight with an ultraviolet light filter causes the scorpion to glow a ghostly green against a purple background making it easy to observe them. Shades of CSI! The tarantulas (giant hairy spiders) were found on the dirt path warmed by the daytime heat. They could be and were picked up and handled. Even though they are gentle creatures by nature, they can bite if roughed up. My wife enjoyed carrying hers around.
Several days ago my wife and I were outside enjoying the late afternoon sun when the bushes about ten metres away exploded with hysterical squawking and screaming giving me quite a start. Suddenly, there were Chachalacas everywhere running in all directions but staying close to the bush. All became clear when a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk flew by and landed in a tree about two metres right above the Chachalacas. The noise persisted and then really got loud when the hawk flew down and started to chase the Chachalacas in the bush. One bird panicked and ran out of the bush right in front of us and then took off in flight. We could plainly see the terror in its eyes and hear the fear in its squawking. The hawk kept chasing the Chachalacas in the bush amidst a lot of frightful squawking but none were taken. The hawk returned to its perch, sat for awhile, then flew away. The Chachalacas were lucky in that the hawk was a juvenile and not that good at hunting. An adult would probably have gotten one, especially the one that ran out of cover toward us. Next day the Chachalacas were back as if nothing had happened. Humans with a scare like that would have needed counseling.
For my final bird of Texas for the season, I have chosen the Golden Fronted Woodpecker. It is very common here and seems to like people. Our trailer park is full of them. The name is appropriate as both males and females sport a golden yellow patch on their foreheads and napes (back of the heads). The male also has a red cap just above the golden forehead and another just above the golden nape. Unlike any other woodpeckers that I have run into, this is the only one that seems to like citrus fruit, especially grapefruit. Overall, they are grayish brown birds that look and behave a lot like our flickers except the flickers are larger.
This being the mating season, woodpeckers are drumming and staking out their territories. Before Europeans settled the Americas, woodpeckers liked to choose dead hollow trees to drum on because they would resonate and carry the sound a long ways. Today substitutes are utilized. One of the woodpeckers’ favourites seems to be metal clad buildings. When one starts drumming on our trailer the entire structure resonates. It is noisy but enjoyable. This spring, a pair of Golden Fronted Woodpeckers drilled out a nest hole in a tree in our backyard. It is too bad that we will not see the family being raised. So it is.