Foam Lake Birding No. 100

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

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: 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

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

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.