Foam Lake Birding No. 96

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

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

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

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.