Foam Lake Birding No. 135



FOAM LAKE BIRDING
                              
                                                                         No. 135

            We returned from Windsor last week and are happy to report seeing a bird that is a rarity on the prairies, the Northern Cardinal.  The Cardinal is one of three spectacular red coloured birds found in southern Ontario.  The other two are the Red Headed Woodpecker and the Scarlet Tanager and seeing any one of the three is memorable.  The Cardinal that we saw was the grey female that visited our daughter's yard on several occasions.  Unfortunately, the Cardinal, never hung around long enough for me to get a photo of her. 

            Cardinals are related to both sparrows and finches and behave as such.  They stay close to the ground usually well hidden in shrubbery and thickets feeding on seeds that may be found there.  As with most sparrows and finches Cardinals readily come to feeders.  Of all members of the family the Cardinals are the most vividly coloured.  The crested all red male with a black face and pink bill is striking and  cannot be mistaken for any other bird.  The female is a grey-brown with traces of red especially on the crest.  Both have pink bills. 

            Cardinals are non-migratory and so are very rarely seen on the prairies where winters are too extreme.  This week's topic is rather timely in that the fall issue of the Yellowhead Flyway Trail Birding Association (YFTBA) has an article about Cardinals being heard and seen in the Yorkton area this past summer.  To confidently expect to see a Cardinal a person has to travel to the Carolinian Forest region of southern Ontario.  The area in question has its northern limits around Toronto extending south to the Carolinas.  Although the Cardinal's range in Canada is limited, in the USA it is found all along the eastern seaboard westward through the south central and western desert states.  In the desert and semi-desert areas of the US and northern Mexico the Pyrrhuloxia (in Greek Firehead) coexists with the Cardinal and often causes confusion in identification for novice birders.  The male Pyrrhuloxia and the female Cardinal look much the same except for the colour of the bill.  The Northern Cardinal has a orange/pink bill; the Pyrrhuloxia, often referred to as the Desert Cardinal, has a yellow one.  There are other more subtle differences also but the bill colour is the best field mark.   

            Although brightly coloured Cardinals are really quite hard to spot as they rummage around in dense bushes, however, their frequent and rather harshly uttered "pink" gives them away.  Then, sooner or later, they come into view and the wait is worth the while. 

           The picture of a male Pyrrhuloxia was taken in February , 2006 in southern Texas. 

            This week's picture of a Cardinal was taken in March in southern Arizona a few years back.  The male (hard to tell in black and white) was actually gathering grasses for nest building.  The surprising thing is that he was very confiding and let us get up very close for some good photos.  Most Cardinals are quite skittish and do not like to get too close physically to humans.  The photos of the perched male and female cardinals were also taken in Arizona but on a different field trip.  It is too bad that they are not here in Saskatchewan to provide a little more colour to the mostly whites and greys of winter. 

         




                                               

                                                                       

Foam Lake Birding No. 134


FOAM LAKE BIRDING

No. 134

            One good thing about the winter is that there are far fewer different species of birds around than in the summer which allows us to get more familiar with the birds that we do have.   In fact, this is the key to becoming a knowledgeable birder.  When one becomes very familiar with the "common" birds then, when a strange bird appears, it is instantly noticed as being different.  After that, it is simply a matter of recording field marks and referring to a bird book for identification.  If the bird vocalizes it makes identification all the easier. 

            This week's featured bird really does not need any lengthy description as everybody, and I mean everybody, knows it on sight.  The Black Billed Magpie, or simply Magpie to us, is one of only a few tropical looking birds that one can see locally.  The sharply contrasting colours and very long tail really do make the magpie stand out as something special, although, most people do not look at it in that way.  In addition,  its blue-green reflections in good light definitely make it look very exotic.  Just think about it, there are only four long tailed birds in all of North America and only one in Canada.  In my humble opinion this definitely qualifies it as extraordinary.  One of the other long tailed birds, a very close cousin of the Black Billed Magpie, is the Yellow Billed Magpie of north central California in the Santa Barbara region.  The two birds are almost identical save for the colour of the bills.  As in all corvids (crow family) the males and females are the same. 

            The Magpie's nest is a rather large affair, often reused, made of coarse sticks stuck together with mud and grass.  The nest is remarkable in that it is one of only a few that has a roof over it which provides good protection from the weather. 

            The magpie has a rather interesting history.  Being a bird of the plains that needs trees in which to build nests it is not found in deep forests only in prairie areas with good stands of poplar bluffs or in trees along waterways (riparian forests).  Prior to European settlement, magpies followed buffalo herds, but when the buffalo were almost exterminated the magpie retreated from the Canadian prairies to the USA.  However, with the introduction of cattle the magpie returned.  Another bird, the Prairie Chicken, did much the same but left Canada completely when grain was no longer threshed but combined. 

            Although magpies are common getting a picture of one is not easy.  Ask anybody who has tried to shoot one.  The only places where it is relatively easy to get good photos of a stationery magpie is in a nature preserve or in the city where the birds are more confiding.  This week's photo was taken in Calgary and even so with some difficulty.  Just as I would get one in focus in my camera it would move to a different location, until  finally, one landed on the roof our daughter's house where it stayed put long enough for me to get some good pictures. 



                                                           

Foam Lake Birding No. 133


FOAM LAKE BIRDING


No. 133

With the recent onset of winter the late fall birding doldrums are over. There are few winter birds as such, but many of the permanent residents that breed away from the proximity of man are back in town. Since the snowfall our backyard has seen a lot of activity with the arrival of Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, Ravens, Magpies, Chickadees, Blue Jays, the ubiquitous House Sparrow and a lone Northern Flicker. We are now waiting for some more of our usual visitors like the White and Red Breasted Nuthatches. Two winter birds, the Northern Shrikes and Pine Grosbeaks are already here. With a little luck we might even see several more irruptive species such as Bohemian Waxwings, Redpolls and Evening Grosbeaks.

Of the birds listed above two are somewhat unexpected as they usually migrate a little bit to the south of us. The flicker is only one of two local woodpeckers that migrate at all and it goes just south of the Canadian border. Of all the years that I have been watching birds I have never seen a flicker in the winter until two years ago at our daughter's place in Saskatoon. It was at her feeders at Christmas time with the temperature at -35C.

Another bird that I have seen only once before in the winter is the Blue Jay (see Article No. 98). According to the range maps in the bird books the Blue Jay migrates just out of the Boreal forest and should be a permanent resident here. However, the jay seems to behave much like the House Finch (see Article No. 7) and does go somewhere a little more pleasant with larger urban centres being the preferred choice.

Even more to our surprise, four juvenile Cedar Waxwings spent one day in our yard last week. Although they do not migrate very far south, I have never seen a Cedar Waxwing this late in the year. Perhaps there are a few more surprises awaiting us.

Coincidentally, as we were enjoying the Blue Jay in our yard this past week, we happened to watch a half hour TV sitcom whose theme centred around a jay that landed on the window ledge of the actors' apartment and refused to leave. Comedy aside, the jay was referred to as a Blue Jay when in fact it was a Mexican species, the Magpie Jay (see Article No. 42). I then recalled watching a TV show several decades ago about a duck that needed help. I do not remember much about it except the "duck", when finally shown, turned out to be a Canada Goose. If there is any point to all this it would be to be careful about what you hear and see on TV.

This week's pictures are of a Blue Jay and Northern flicker eating peanuts at a peanut feeder in our backyard. Both birds also helped themselves to black oil seeds with the jay hauling off mouthfuls to store somewhere for future use.

Foam Lake Birding No. 132

FOAM LAKE BIRDING


No. 132

With this first snowfall I thought it might be appropriate to write about something that is more closely associated with snow. This idea led me to thinking about owls even though many owls do not like snow too much and migrate to warmer places. These mostly nocturnal birds have been mentioned in literary works for many centuries and in many cultures with the most recent example at the beginning of the first book of the Harry Potter series. Why? Owls have several characteristics that captures man's attention and imagination with the most important one being its ability to function at night, something man cannot do without technological help. When one throws in the owl's ability to fly absolutely silently and its unique hooting call into the mix, humans give the owl a kind of uncomfortable and grudging respect. Finally, owls are the only birds that have their eyes placed directly in front providing them with binocular vision making them more effective hunters. This placement of the eyes closely resembles that of humans thus the owl has acquired the reputation of being wise even though it is not too bright as far a as birds go. For a more detailed discussion of the unique characteristics of the owls refer to Article No. 35.

There are ten, yes ten, species of owls that can be seen in our area at one time or another depending on the time of the year and the kind of year it has been weather-wise. Of the ten species, two are year round residents; five are summer residents that migrate south for the winter; three are permanent northern residents that periodically show up (irrupt) out of their normal range in the winter. Of the last three, only the snowy owl is commonly irruptive and can be expected in our area every two or three years or so. The other two can be expected only once or twice every several decades.

Because I have no photos of any "winter" owls I chose to write about a common, but seldom seen, nocturnal little owl, the Northern Saw Whet Owl. It is one of the smallest of owls and definitely the smallest one that we will encounter in Saskatchewan. How small? A robin is about 10 inches in length; the Saw Whet is only 8 inches long but with a shorter tail. Try and imagine a big headed brown robin streaked with white. Because of their small size, nocturnal habits and migratory nature Saw Whet Owls are seldom seen by man.

Early European settlers gave the owl its name after the sounds it makes which is a raspy toot repeated about twice a second and reminded them of the sound made when sharpening (whetting) a saw. I have sharpened saw blades but have never heard a Saw Whet owl call so I cannot comment on the matter.

The first time, and for many years the only time, that I saw a Saw Whet was an encounter with a flock of six one summer when I was about 12 years old. The owls were perched in trees near one of our sheds and just kept sleeping soundly completely oblivious to our stealthy approach so as to get a really good up-close look at them. There was no need for caution as the owls were very tame allowing us to come right up to them, pick them up from the trees and then carry them around. My two younger brothers and I "played" with them the whole day being very careful not to hurt them in any way. Strangely enough the owls did not seem to mind the experience at all. One time one of the owls that was sitting on my finger managed to clamp down rather hard and stick one of its claws into my skin. I instinctively jerked my hand back owl and all. That was not a wise move as the little owl then really clamped down on my finger, as if holding on to struggling prey, causing me some real pain. Realizing what had happened I forced myself to relax and the owl let go of my finger. We were hoping to see them the following day but they flew away during the night putting an end to that little episode. They certainly were cute.

For many years I thought the six were a family group of two adults and four young but that was not the case as all six were medium brown in colour streaked with white which indicates adult birds. Juvenile birds are a dark chocolate brown that are so completely different from the adults that for many years they were thought to be a separate species, the Kirtland's Owl. Furthermore owls rarely, if ever, rear four young with two being the norm.

This week's photo was taken in a desert park near Tucson, AZ. The Saw Whet is a permanent resident in northern Arizona but is a rarity where it was seen. Needless to say it caused quite a stir among local birders.

Foam Lake Birding No. 131

FOAM LAKE BIRDING


No. 131

November has arrived and with it some late fall and winter birds. Just this past week we have seen Red Crossbills, Pine Siskins, a Northern Shrike and a Blue Jay. The jay has been hanging around the sunflower feeder for several days now providing me with some good photo opportunities which I took advantage of. I also got a shot of the shrike but was a bit disappointed in that it was a juvenile and not a sharply defined adult. The Red Crossbills "got away".

As I was trying to decide on this week's topic and idly thinking about different birding events in the past, I happened to recall a statement made by a very interested but novice birder at one of my birding presentations. He maintained that some Purple Martins had come to his yard and proceeded to throw out young House Sparrows from their houses. I found this completely out of character for Purple Martins but had no explanation for it at the time. Sometime after that it dawned on me what had probably happened. A close lookalike, the aggressive European Starling, was probably the culprit that did the ejecting of the young sparrows and not the Purple Martin. With careful observation the differences between the two are quite noticeable, but a casual glance at a starling, especially one in flight, often results in it being misidentified as a Purple Martin.

The European Starling belongs to a family of birds that is confined to the old world and has no native counterparts in the Americas. Sixty starlings were introduced by the English in 1890-91 to Central Park in New York City and now number 200 million in the US alone. One of the major supporters and active participants of this effort was a literary society dedicated to Shakespeare that wanted to introduce every bird to North America that was mentioned in Shakespeare's literary works. It was successful with two: the starling and House Sparrow. Fortunately, other attempts failed.

The starling is a dark, stubby tailed sparrow-sized bird with a longish needle-like bill. (The bill shape is the easiest way to distinguish the starling from the stubby-billed Purple Martin). During the breeding season the male moults from brown to a shiny black that in good light reflects blue and purple making the bird quite attractive. A rather rare characteristic is that the bill also changes colour. During the breeding season it is yellow and then black the rest of the year.

The bill is unique in another way that is very interesting but of no value in identifying the bird in the field. The jaw muscles of most birds work to clamp the bill shut with a lot of force. Large parrots, for example, have reportedly snapped a broom handle in two. The jaw muscles of the starling work in reverse. Although they do work to clamp the bill shut most of the muscles' power is used to snap the bill open. This feature allows the starling to pry its closed bill into dense leaf litter or tangled grass then snap the bill open parting the leaves or grass and exposing insects, worms, spiders and so on. In addition, it has the unique ability to rotate its eyes forward giving it binocular vision with which to zero in on its prey more accurately. Remarkable.

The starling is found over all of North America save for the tundra. It is essentially non migratory but our harsh winters are a bit much so it does migrate to the southern parts of Canada and the northern US. In our area the starling is really only a summer resident but some birds do winter over in our larger cities where the micro climate provides a little more warmth. In any case, starlings are not as numerous here as in the more moderate climates like those found in the US

This week's photo of a spring male was taken at Llano Grande nature preserve in Weslaco, TX. It had just taken a bath so it looks quite shaggy.

foam Lake Birding 130


FOAM LAKE BIRDING


No. 130

After a three week tour of the New England states it is nice to be back home and, happily, to no snow. Besides doing the touristy things, as expected, we did see some interesting birds including four lifers: Brant (geese), Eurasian Widgeon (duck), Mute Swans and Monk Parakeets. Of the four only the Brant is native. The widgeon is a casual visitor from Europe and eastern Russia while the swans and parakeets are exotics that have established feral (tame birds that have gone wild and bred successfully) populations.

The Monk Parakeet is a native of South America that was widely used in the caged bird trade. As always happens, some birds escaped while others were deliberately released when taking care of them became too bothersome. Most exotic birds, Budgies for example, do not do well in the wild in a strange country but the Monk Parakeet is one of the few exceptions. It is now common from Florida north to Connecticut and west to Chicago where breeding colonies have been well established.

The long tailed, Robin-sized Monk Parakeet is bright green overall sporting a greenish-yellow belly band, with grey breast, throat and forehead and blue fore wings. A pretty bird. Ignoring the beak, it looks like a green Mourning Dove. Being a typical parrot it constantly squawks and chirps and a colony of them make quite a racket.

These parrots are very social and live in small colonies (10 - 100 birds) centred about their huge stick nests which they utilize all year round. Depending on the number of birds, the colony may build only one or several nests close together like an apartment complex. The irregularly shaped nests vary in size but often reach two metres in width and/or height with several entrances in each. The sticks used in nest construction are rather coarse and vary in thickness from a soda straw to a pencil and often longer than either. These nests are not only used for raising young but for roosting and providing shelter during bad weather. In severe winter weather groups of birds huddle together in these nests for warmth enabling them to survive. The nests are usually built high up in large trees but utility poles are also often used. Inevitably, the nests would catch fire so authorities had the nests removed but local people liked the birds enough that they have built special structures for them on which to build their nests and leave the power poles alone. A nice move.

It should be pointed out that the word, parakeet, has no scientific meaning but through common usage is applied to smaller parrots with long tails. For a more detailed discussion on names of parrots see Article No. 73. (Go to my website: www.johnthebirder.com)

This week's pictures of a Monk Parakeet and the nests were taken in western Connecticut. We were actually on the lookout for them and drove with our windows open in order to hear them. We did. The parakeets were busy adding to their nests and put on quite a performance for us.

Foam Lake Birding No. 129


FOAM LAKE BIRDING


No. 129

Looking through some of the pictures on my wife's camera I came across some that I had completely forgotten about. The pictures in question were taken when we were in southern Saskatchewan in the grasslands this summer. The photos that really caught my attention were the ones taken of sloughs filled with Purple Loosestrife, a garden flower with no natural enemies, that has become a noxious weed. This imported species is very invasive and very difficult to eradicate once established. The different levels of government have banned the cultivation of any relatives of this plant but it is a little late in some parts of the country. Fortunately, it has not established itself locally.

In keeping with the harvesting hunting theme I am featuring another game duck, our smallest dabbling duck, - the Green-winged Teal. The name, teal, has no scientific meaning at all but, through common usage, it is a name applied to the smallest dabbling ducks. There are three teals in Canada two of which, the Green-winged and Blue-winged, are common around here. The third, the Cinnamon Teal, is a bird of the west and south of this continent that is relatively common in the south western parts of our province but is only a straggler locally.

With respect to field marks the drake Green-winged Teal is a small greyish duck with a rich chocolate brown head featuring a broad green eye stripe much like the Widgeon except the Widgeon has a grey head. At close range or with binoculars the dull yellow flanks near the tail are clearly visible and are definitive in identifying this smallest of our dabblers. Another useful field mark is the vertical white slash just in front of the wing that is clearly visible when the duck is on land or swimming. As with the Blue-winged Teal the wing patches of the Green-winged teal can only be seen in flight unless the bird is preening. The hen is a drab brown but is usually in the company of the drake, except when rearing young, making identification easy.

The picture of the Purple Loosestrife was taken near Coronach and the picture of the Green-winged Teals was taken at the Llano Grande nature preserve in Weslaco, TX. For a good sense of the colours of the teal consult a bird book or log on to my website: www.johnthebirder.com. The Purple Loosestrife will not be in a bird book so the website is the only choice. Enjoy.

Foam Lake Birding No. 128

FOAM LAKE BIRDING


No. 128

This is the time of year when harvest is in full swing with swathers, combines, trucks and other machinery dotting the farm landscape. It was not that long ago when harvest had an entirely different thrust than it does today. Harvest was a time of gathering food to be stored for the winter so families could survive until the next summer when new foodstuffs would be available. Harvest included much more than the threshing of crops. It included: gathering and storing vegetables from gardens, picking and preserving fruit, collecting and drying mushrooms plus many more. These particular activities were essentially the domain of women and children. The men on the other hand would be responsible for providing meat by hunting and fishing. While some of the meat was eaten when fresh most would be dried into a kind of jerky (pemmican by First Nations for example) or made into a variety of sausages all of which would not spoil for a long time. The tradition of hunting for meat still continues to this day when people legally hunt game birds such as ducks, geese, cranes and so on.

One game bird that used to be very common but recently has declined dramatically is the American Pintail Duck. In the 1950s it was one of the most common of ducks with every slough seemingly having a nesting pair or two. Nowadays one will usually see some in the spring and fall but rarely in the summer. Efforts have been made by organizations like Ducks Unlimited to help the species recover but progress has been slow. To further help the Pintails hunting limits have been severely restricted.

The Pintail is a Mallard sized duck but much more streamlined and slender with a rather long slim neck giving it a swan-like appearance. The drake is rather striking with the white on the upper breast and neck leading to a distinct point on the side of its brown head. The body is grey with some black on the wings and near the tail. The tail has elongated feathers that reminded people of a straight pin hence the name, Pintail. The drake Pintail is not brightly coloured but he does look dapper as he were going to some formal affair. The hen is a drab mottled brown.

This week's picture was taken at the Batiquitos Lagoon in Carlsbad, CA where many ducks winter. Because these waters are protected the ducks become quite confiding and can be approached closely for good photos. In addition, the ducks have usually moulted into their spring plumage and the colours are very vibrant adding to the quality of the photos. This week's photo shows two pairs of Pintails and a pair of Widgeons in the left foreground.

Foam Lake Birding No. 127


Sometimes interesting things come in pairs. Our birding experience this late summer has been just that. Not only did we have a pair of Brown Thrashers in our yard but we have been visited by a Sharp Shinned Hawk several times.


Now we have had Sharp Shinned Hawks in our yard before but I was not taking pictures back then and as a result I missed some great shots. Several years ago a Sharp Shinned had killed a Pine Siskin just outside our window and proceeded to eat it on the ground under our chokecherry trees. Before it started to eat, it spread its wings out sideways dropping the tips making a kind of tent to cover its freshly killed prey. This practice of covering the prey is called "mantling" and, for reasons unknown, most hawks do it. I wish I had taken that photo.

The Sharp Shinned Hawk, referred to as a "Sharpie" by birders, is one of three members of a family of hawks called Accipiters or bird hawks because their main prey is birds. The largest Accipiter is the chicken sized Goshawk (Goose hawk) that can take prey the size of partridges. It can be seen around here only in the winter time as it is a bird of the far north. The "middle child" of the group is the crow sized Coopers Hawk which used to be notorious for raiding chicken coops and stealing young chicks thereby earning the nickname of Chicken Hawk. The smallest member is the jay or flicker sized Sharp Shinned or Sharpie. All three are accomplished hunters of birds which they chase down by direct flight. They have rather stubby paddle shaped wings and long tails which give them great speed and manoeuvrability when chasing birds through trees and shrubs.

The Sharpie and Coopers are almost identical in appearance with blue grey top sides and white breasts and bellies barred with orange. Because female hawks are larger than males, a male Coopers and female Sharpie are just about the same size and are very difficult to tell apart. The differences are so subtle that one has to refer to a good bird book and then try and get some practice in the field. For those who live in urban areas and see a small hawk chasing birds assume it is a Sharpie because Coopers tend to live more removed from man.

This week's photo of a sharpie was taken several weeks ago when my wife scared it up from her flower bed. From there it flew up and sat on our Purple Martin birdhouse where I got this shot. We do not know what it was doing in the flower bed as there were no signs of it feeding. As a final note one has to remember that if one puts out feeders for birds it also attracts predators like shrikes and hawks. It may be heart wrenching to watch a predator take a small bird but that is the way nature is and should be left alone.

Foam Lake Birding No. 126


FOAM LAKE BIRDING


No. 126

After discussing grasslands birds in the last three columns, I decided to go back to our backyard. Although things are generally humdrum at this time of year at our place , but from time to time things do get quite interesting on the birding front. Such has been the case recently.

For the last couple of weeks we have had a pair of Brown Thrashers seemingly living in our backyard. Now Brown Thrashers are not scarce by any means, but are usually overlooked because of their habit of feeding on the ground in heavy thickets and very few urban yards provide the necessary habitat. With this year's rains the thickets in our backyard are quite lush and seem to appeal to the thrashers. Even so, the pair in our yard do not seem to be quite so secretive thus providing us with some good birding. We have seen them preening and sunning themselves (and eating a few chokecherries) while perched in our chokecherry tree. At other times we have observed them chasing after insects on our lawn.

One interesting characteristic of all thrashers is that they are all good runners especially when running from one hiding place to another. The several different species in the American south run with their long tails held up in the air. The Brown Thrashers run with their heads stretched forward and their tails straight back like a Road Runner (see Art. No. 61) or a two legged dinosaur chasing after prey. I tried to get a picture of a running Brown Thrasher for this article but they were too quick.

Brown Thrashers belong to a family of birds called mimids (birds that mimic other sounds). Although related to Mocking Birds and Catbirds, both good mimics, thrashers almost never mimic any other sounds. However, like all mimids they are good songsters and are especially vocal during courtship.

Brown Thrashers are robin-sized birds but longer and more slender with long down curved bills and yellow eyes. Their white breasts and bellies are heavily streaked with brown; the backs and tails are a bright rufous brown; the head is brownish grey. Males and females are the same.

This week's picture shows a Brown Thrasher preening and sunning himself while the second photo shows another thrasher (perhaps the same one) sitting in a chokecherry tree helping himself to some fruit which they eat only occasionally. The pair in our yard were quite confiding and often came within a metre or two of us as we were sitting in the yard enjoying the warm weather. I have seen this pair in our neighbours' yards and could very easily be in just about anybody's yard so be on the lookout for this most interesting bird.





Foam Lake Birding No. 125

FOAM LAKE BIRDING


No. 125

Like the Lark Bunting discussed in the last article, the Ferruginous Hawk is a bird that also occurs only in the grasslands of North America. In Canada it is found only in the southern grasslands of Alberta and Saskatchewan. For many years the Ferruginous Hawk has been listed as rare, endangered, threatened and so on, but every time that I have traveled the south I have always seen at least several.

The Ferruginous Hawk shares the plains with two other similar sized (actually slightly smaller) hawks, the Swainsons and Redtailed. While driving along any road in the grasslands one will almost be assured of seeing one of these three hawks every hundred metres or so sitting prominently on a fence post or power pole. From there they survey their surroundings for prey with their favourite the common gopher (Richardson's Ground Squirrel) supplemented by mice and striped gophers. In addition, the Grasslands National Park now has about ten Prairie Dog colonies that serve as nature's pantry for a variety of predators. Only the pups can realistically be taken by the Ferruginous Hawk, but the much larger Golden Eagles have no trouble dispensing with an adult.

Of the three hawks listed the Ferruginous is the palest with white under parts extending from the chin to the tail tip. Although it is the largest of our hawks the size difference is so small that if all three hawks were lined up side by side they would all appear to be the same size. The undersides of the tails of the Swainsons and Redtailed are barred while those of the Ferruginous are pure white. This difference can be used to differentiate the Ferruginous from the others. While the females and males are the same the females are noticeably larger than the males which adds to the confusion if one is trying to identify hawks by size.

This week's photo was taken along a road near Coronach in the Big Muddy Valley. The picture clearly shows the pure white underside of the tail which the other hawks do not have. Because of its pale colouration, especially about the head, the bird seems to have a bug-eyed look. For those who venture into the southern part of our province look for the Ferruginous Hawk sitting prominently on a power pole looking for its next meal







Foam Lake Birding No. 124



FOAM LAKE BIRDING


No. 124

The Western Meadowlark discussed in the last article is a grassland bird that readily adapts to man-made hayfields and pastures. This week's bird, the Lark Bunting, lives almost exclusively in natural grasslands that are more or less undisturbed by human activity save for grazing livestock. They used to be more abundant in areas adjacent to the grasslands but are almost completely absent there at the present.

The sparrow-sized male Lark Bunting is easily recognized by its all black body with pure white shoulder patches. Considering how birds are often named it could have been called the "White Winged Blackbird". In spite of its colours the Lark Bunting is more closely related to the sparrows than the Icterids (blackbirds). If nothing else its stout triangular bill used for seed eating stands out in sharp contrast to the narrow pointed bill of the insect eating Icterids. The word "lark" is an English term used to describe a family of small birds that flutter slowly through the air usually singing as they do. The European Skylark is probably the most famous one immortalized in poetry such as John McCrea's In Flanders Fields. The Lark Bunting, although not a lark, behaves in typical lark fashion singing a series of tumbling tinkling notes as it flies slowly through the air.

Although related to New World sparrows, the Lark Buntings also appears to be distantly related to the visually and behaviourally different New World (Wood) Warblers and share some characteristics of both. Lark Buntings feed and behave like sparrows, however, the males and females are differently coloured like the wood warblers unlike our sparrows where males and females are the same. The use of the term "bunting" is confusing. In Eurasia, the term "buntings" is used to describe birds that are known as sparrows here in the Americas. The term, buntings, as used in the Americas really has no scientific meaning and is applied to several different birds related to sparrows.

This week's photos were taken along a road near Val Marie . The Lark Buntings were not nearly as abundant as I have seen them in the past but still there were enough of them so that I could get some good pictures. The side shot clearly shows the white shoulder patch while the rear view gives a good profile of its massive beak. Next week - the Ferruginous hawk.

Foam Lake Birding No. 123


FOAM LAKE BIRDING


No. 123

Our trip through southern Saskatchewan was great in every way. The weather was clear and hot but the grasslands were very green with flowers blooming everywhere. Usually, at this time of year, the grasslands are brown because of the heat and lack of rain but this year was pleasantly different. The birding was great also. We did not see any lifers but I did manage to add eleven photos of new birds to my collection. Several of the birds such as the Swainson's Hawk and Western Kingbird occur around here also.

This week I am covering a bird that used to be quite common around Foam Lake but has been in steep decline recently. Originally the Robin-sized Western Meadowlark was a grassland's bird but as farmers cleared the land and seeded many acres into hayfields and pasture the meadowlark moved north to the new ecosystem. Now the reverse is taking place. Farmers in general are getting out of livestock and into intensive crop farming eliminating pastureland. As goes the pastureland so goes the meadowlark. However, the grasslands of the south, unsuitable for cropping, still have many meadowlarks.

There are two meadowlarks in North America, the Eastern and Western with the possibility of a third, the Lillian's, which is still considered a subspecies of the Eastern. Except for the song the two are so similar in all aspects that, where ranges overlap, even an expert birder will hesitate to identify one in the field unless it sings. The one in today's photo is the Western because: one, I heard it sing,; two, the eastern does not occur here.

The Meadowlarks belong to the family of birds known as Icterids (blackbirds) but their looks and songs do not indicate that. The only black it has is a V on its bright yellow breast, while the upperparts are brown and white striped. As the bird flies away it has a chunky, short tailed appearance. The pointed but short tail always shows a lot of white on the outer edges when the bird is in flight. Unlike most Icterids its song is really very pleasant and cheery. Males and females are the same.

This week's photo was taken along a road near Val Marie, SK., Most of the meadowlarks faced away from me when I attempted to take a picture but this one was very cooperative giving me good profile and frontal views. In colour the pictures are very eye catching. Next week - the Lark Bunting.

Foam Lake Birding No. 121

FOAM LAKE BIRDING No. 121

After what seems like an eternity of rain and cool weather temperatures are finally rising and things are drying up to everybody's delight. For several days in a row now we have had our morning coffee outdoors without having to wear jackets. Nice. Throw in the surrounding luxuriant vegetation and beautiful flowers all set to a background of birdsong and things simply do not get any better.

Every once in awhile I do a repeat article on a certain bird and this week is one of those instances. For about three or four years now Mourning Doves have frequented our back lane and must have nested there somewhere. This year the doves have been exceptionally busy underneath our black oil seed feeder eating the seeds dropped on the ground by birds at the feeder itself. They are a welcome addition to our yard.

In addition to the feeding activity we have watched the doves going through their courtship ritual with the male puffing himself up to look much larger, and supposedly more desirable, to the female. The female, in turn, would touch the male's bill with her own accompanied with soft cooing. (I believe this the origin of the term "billing and cooing"). The female definitely seemed ready to "play house" as it were. The end result is that we have a Mourning Dove's nest in our backyard.

This event makes a total of twelve (12) different species of birds that have nested in our yard at one time or another. As of this writing we have had six different species of birds nest in our yard this year alone. Both totals include Brown Headed Cowbirds.

Pigeons in general make very flimsy nests and if possible will utilize a previous year's nest made by some other bird. The Mourning Dove in our yard has taken over a last year's Robin's nest in our apple tree. The nest survived the winter relatively undamaged needing little refurbishing which suited the dove's lack of building skills just fine. In any case, the dove seems to like it very much.

This week's pictures are of the two doves "billing and cooing" on a rail in our yard and the second is of the female on her nest watching us intently. She is very comfortable with human activity all around her and does not seem to be bothered by things such as a noisy lawn mower just a few feet beneath her. I hope nothing disturbs her to the point that she abandons the nest as I can hardly wait until the young hatch so I can watch the parents attending to them.





Foam lake Birding No. 120

FOAM LAKE BIRDING


No. 120

The recent deluges along with warm temperatures have produced luxuriant vegetation, including weeds, over the whole province. Presently, the fruit trees are loaded with blossoms with the expectation of good yields of fruit later on that will come in handy for both people and wildlife. For example, the Cedar Waxwings are already utilizing the bounty by gorging themselves on flower blossoms especially apple petals. Later in the year they, along with other birds like Robins, will be eating the fruit.
The rains have also had an effect on the rural landscape overall. Creeks and rivers are at capacity and in some cases overflowing; the water tables are high; sloughs and lakes are much larger in area and quite a bit deeper. All this has affected the wildlife that lives on, in or near water.
Specifically, diving ducks like Canvasbacks and Scaups need larger and deeper bodies of water than dabblers like Teals and Mallards. One diver, the Redheaded Duck, needs even larger and deeper water than either the Canvasback or Scaup. The Redhead is often confused with the Canvasback because the colour of the males' heads is the same brick red and the body colours are somewhat similar. Once one gets past focussing on the head colour the differences between the two species are quite obvious. First, the Redhead has a "duck shaped" head that curves sharply downward from the forehead to the tip of the bill; the Canvasback has a "goose shaped" head that slopes gently downward in a straight line from the forehead to the tip of the bill. Second, the Canvasback has a longer gooselike neck giving it a more slender and graceful appearance. Third, the canvasback has a nearly white body while the Redhead has a dark grey one. It is best to check out the field marks of these ducks in a bird book before going out to see them in the wild. See article No. 51 for a more thorough discussion of these two species. If a red headed duck is white with a goose-like head and neck it is a Canvasback; if it is grey with a duck-like head and neck it is a Redhead.
The Redhead has another rather unusual characteristic in that it is quite parasitic and the hen will often lay her eggs in the nests of other ducks and let them do the work of raising the young. It is not unusual to see a hen Scaup with both Scaup and Redhead ducklings tagging along behind her. However, Redheads are not completely parasitic like Cowbirds and do build nests and raise the young themselves. Talk about laissez faire ducks.
For the winter Redheads often migrate to southern coastal areas to feed and rest in saltwater marshes and lagoons. This week's picture was taken at a nature preserve in South Padre Island just off the coast of Texas where many of our summer residents can be seen in the winter months.

Foam Lake Birding No. 119















FOAM LAKE BIRDING







No. 119


Considering the weather of the past two years I never thought I would find myself welcoming rain but that is exactly what I did as I was writing this article this morning. By all accounts this rain was appreciated by both town and farm folk alike. Another personal benefit to me was that being confined to the indoors gave me the time to deal with an ever growing stack of paperwork including this article.


This past week a variety of birds, especially Robins and House Sparrows, have hatched young and are presently feeding them. The interesting thing is that the young remain very quiet until the parents come in with food and then the "baby chirping" kicks in. Nests that were previously hidden and unnoticed are now out there for everybody to see exposing the young to potential predators. However, this problem exists for a brief time only as the young fledge quickly and serious predation is not a big problem.


While birds like Robins and House Sparrows have already raised a brood and are getting ready to raise a second and even a third later on, birds like Goldfinches have just started nesting. It is interesting to note that birds that raise multiple broods usually are either permanent residents or birds that arrive early in the spring and leave late in the fall. Birds, like Purple Martins and Yellow Warblers, that raise only one brood arrive later in the spring and leave earlier in the fall.


This past week or so we have seen a number of Tree Swallows flitting about in our backyard and in neighbouring yards checking out suitable nesting sites. Being cavity nesters they readily accept bird houses of just about any kind and anywhere. Our yard has several bird houses including one unoccupied one which the swallows did check out but nothing definite so far. My wife related a humorous incident that she witnessed on one of her early morning walks. A Tree Swallow was trying to land on the "O" on the stop sign by the school. Apparently, it thought the "O" might be an opening into a suitable nesting site! This is rather late for them to be still looking for sites and not already raising young and perhaps the lack of cavities has made the birds somewhat desperate and frantic.


The male Tree Swallows are pure white underneath and steely blue on top from the forehead to the tail tip. When perched they give the appearance of being dressed in formal wear for a very important social function. The females are much the same with the black being more subdued. In a nutshell, the males show more contrast . Once seen they really cannot be mistaken for any other bird.


This week's photos of a male (back facing) and female (front facing) were taken several years ago when the pair nested in a birdhouse in our backyard. The birds were very confiding allowing us to approach them within a metre or two before flying off a short distance and then landing again. They are very pleasant to have around and I hope a pair decides to nest in our yard this year.







Foam Lake Birding No. 118














FOAM LAKE BIRDING







No. 118







This past week I have seen the extensive flooding around Yorkton and Humboldt which brought back not so fond memories of the very wet 1950s - at least where I lived. Then, as now, flooding has caused small isolated bodies of water to swell their banks and flow to other similar bodies of water eventually connecting to lakes and streams that contain fish. As a result the fish end up in all sorts of unlikely places bringing fish eating predators with them, especially birds.




One such group of birds is the family of terns and except for one species, the Black Tern, (see article No. 56) all are primarily fish eaters. With the recent flooding and resultant movement of minnows terns can be found almost anywhere. This is exactly what I came across along a roadside near Waldsea lake just north west of Humboldt where we watched a small flock of black capped white terns feeding.




Just by watching them I could not determine with certainty what species they were because there are two very similar terns in the same area, the Common and Forster's. After taking a large number of photos the pure white wing tips, as seen from above, and the pure white bodies were the field marks that confirmed my suspicions that the birds were the Forster's Terns. In the Common Tern the corresponding parts are grey. Had they been vocal, as terns usually are, identification would have been easy. The Common Tern utters a constant barrage of high pitched scolding calls similar to that of the Black Tern while the Forster's gives a raspy single call repeated leisurely which one birder described as a "croak". These particular birds must have been very hungry as they were absolutely silent .




This week's photo shows three Forster's Terns fishing. One has just spotted a fish and is getting ready to dive; the second is in a dive and is just about to enter the water; the third is in the water and is just starting to emerge. Enjoy!







Foam Lake Birding No. 117












From the fourteenth to the twentieth of May we were in Mexico spending as much time as possible watching birds of the Yucatan Peninsula while navigating through a variety of activities as required by a pending family wedding. Of course some time had to be spent also at the beach under a coconut palm tree just lazing around and watching the incredible blue-green waters of the Mayan Riviera. Things just do not get any better than that.






On the birding front we saw three 'lifers" and became reacquainted with several others from our past birding efforts managing to get some good photos from both categories. Although there were birds everywhere we were fortunate enough to be able to see most of them from the third floor balcony of our hotel. From a hiker's perspective, the hotel complex is built in such a way that much of the original jungle is still intact among the buildings and a walk anywhere on the grounds means a walk on a hard surface path through an actual forest. All of this makes for very easy and very comfortable birding. To top it off (pardon the pun), our balcony was above the height of the trees and I was able to get a top down view of birds that normally stay in the treetops. Great!






This week I am covering two birds that have names that evoke the question, "How did they get their names?". The first such bird is the Social Flycatcher which looks like a smaller twin of the Great Kiskadee (see article No. 38) and can easily be mistaken for it but for its completely different vocalizations. It is called "Social" because it is seldom seen alone, rather it is usually in small groups ranging from two or three birds to six or seven, perhaps family groups. Like the Kiskadee, it is very confiding and can be approached quite closely before flying away. The second bird is the Melodious Blackbird which looks like a larger version of the Brewer's Blackbird found around our area (see article No. 4). The name, Blackbird, is self evident but the name, Melodious, not so much - even when it "sings". The phrase "relatively speaking" definitely comes into play here. Compared to the thrushes, mimics and many sparrows it is not very musical at all, but compared to its blackbird relatives it is rather, well, melodious. To me, this bird squeaks and squeals in a somewhat musical way as compared to the outwardly harsh pretend singing that our local blackbirds voice. However, there was more to it all than just simple singing, musical or otherwise. Having several Melodious Blackbirds vocalizing just outside our balcony doors gave everything a very tropical flavour as it were. We definitely knew we were somewhere exotic.






Both of this week's pictures were taken from the balcony of our hotel room. Compare these photos with the ones from the 4th and 38th articles for the aforementioned similarities.

Foam Lake Birding No. 116






FOAM LAKE BIRDING




No. 116




Whenever I think of transient birds my mind usually recalls the various sparrows such as the White Throated, White Crowned, Harris and Lincolns that occur regularly in our backyards and are presently here. However, there are many other transients, waders for example, that never visit our yards but are quite common in rural areas.




This spring I happened to see several different waders and from that group decided to feature the Lesser Yellowlegs. The Lesser Yellowlegs is a smaller version, a twin as it were, of its close relative the Greater Yellowlegs that was covered in Article No. 22. Just about everything that was said about the Greater can also be said about the Lesser.




So, what are the field marks that can be used to tell them apart? In mixed flocks the size difference is very noticeable and can be used with confidence. If the birds are not in mixed flocks, there are two differences that are not too subtle and can be used to determine which is which. First, the distress call of the Lesser, when scared up, is a rather gentle two note yew yew; the distress call of the Greater is a much more pronounced three note dill dill dill. Second, if the birds are silent, bill length can be used with good reliability in much the same manner as is used to distinguish the Downy from the Hairy Woodpecker. (See Article No. 27). The bill of the Lesser is finer, straighter and shorter than the heavier, slightly up- curved and much longer bill of the Greater. The bill length of the Lesser is just slightly greater than the distance from the base of its bill to the back of its head; The bill length of the Greater is almost twice as great as the distance from the base of its bill to the back of its head.




This week's photo was taken this spring near a widely flooded Waldsea Lake just north of Humboldt. The birds in this instance were easy to identify because they were accompanied by the much larger Willet (not in the picture) which is approximately the same size as the Greater Yellowlegs. In the colour photo the yellow legs really stand out immediately identifying it as one of the two species of Yellowlegs.

Foam Lake Birding No. 115






FOAM LAKE BIRDING



Bo. 115



As of this writing only a few transients have arrived and even those have been scarce, except for the juncos. With that being said there were two Fox Sparrows, uncommon birds to say the least, in our backyard last week that I had seen only once before and that was in the spring of 1996. Yet, they are common in the Boreal Forest not very far from us. How come, then, we do not see more of them in our yards in the spring along with the rest of the transients?



The answer lies in the way in which birds migrate. Birds like Mallard Ducks, Robins and White Throated Sparrows fly a few hundred kilometres and then stop for a few days and get ready for the next short hop. Other birds like the Ruby Throated Hummingbird, many warblers and terns fly very long distances without a break. The Fox Sparrow belongs to the latter group. It does not go that far south in the winter, but once it decides to migrate it takes off and does not stop until it reaches its destination. In other words, it will spend the winter in a place like Kentucky and once it decides to migrate it will fly non-stop from there to the Boreal Forest in Canada over-flying places like Foam Lake. Occasionally, during migration, birds run into very bad weather making flight impossible thus forcing them to land in places where they normally do not. This what happened this year to the Fox Sparrow. I do not wish any harm to the Fox Sparrows but in a way I am glad that the weather turned bad and forced them to land thus providing me with a chance to observe them.



The Fox Sparrow looks much like any sparrow - a brown and whitish streaked bird, except for rusty red upper parts especially the tail. The very noticeable difference is in its behaviour. All sparrows like to scratch about in leaf litter but the Fox Sparrow carries it to extremes. Under gooseberry, currant and raspberry bushes it just lets fly with debris being scattered in all directions. It gives the impression that something supernatural is happening until the bird is seen. It then moves over a few inches and repeats the performance. Then, without warning, it will dart across to the next nearest shrub and start all over again. Usually, a birder sees the flying debris first and then the Fox Sparrow.



This week's picture was taken two weeks ago of one of the aforementioned Fox Sparrows under our Black Currant bush scratching like the dickens. I wanted to get it into the open where I could get a better shot of it but its quick movements made that impossible. Perhaps if it had stayed around a little longer than the two days that we saw it I might have gotten a better photo but this one will have to do. Unfortunately, it is too late to see them this year but there is always next year. Next year has arrived. 



Foam Lake Birding No. 114






FOAM LAKE BIRDING



No. 114



The nice thing about spending the latter part of winter down south is that one experiences spring twice in one year - once at the beginning of March in Texas and the second at the end of April here in Saskatchewan. The greening of grass and the blossoming of flowers is much the same in both places, but the migration of birds is not.
     In the spring, in Saskatchewan, we experience the loss of a few winter birds like the Bohemian Waxwing and Pine Grosbeak that leave for the north, but at the same time we are swamped with an influx of summer residents of every description and with quite a few transients such as the White Crowned and White Throated Sparrows thrown in for good measure. In Texas things are just the reverse. There, the large migration is of winter birds, especially waterfowl and shore birds, that head north in the spring leaving the southern wetlands somewhat barren for the summer. The opposite occurs in the fall. On the other hand, they do have many more transients than we do, especially warblers, that are passing through on their way to and from the north to the tropics. However, there are very few summer residents in Texas. One notable example is the Scissor Tailed Flycatcher that spends the winter in the tropics and breeds in the southern US. The Fulvous and Black Bellied Whistling Ducks used to head for Mexico for the winter and show up in Texas in March, but in the last few years even they have been observed all year round. In summary, the large influx of migrating birds in Texas occurs in the fall while ours occurs in the spring.  
      At the moment some of our summer residents such as crows, robins and Mourning Doves are already here but the bulk is yet to come. With the prediction of much milder weather for the next little while, the transients should be arriving in full force in the first two weeks of May and then lingering for two or three weeks before heading north. Juncos and Fox Sparrows are here already. Transients can be seen both spring and fall, but spring is better because the spring birds are in their bright breeding plumage and easier to identify.
     This week I decided to cover a transient that is a member of the family of warblers but behaves more like a nuthatch than any warbler. This warbler, aptly named the Black and White Warbler, is an uncommon but regular visitor in the backyards of towns like Foam Lake. All warblers have powerful legs and feet and can hang upside down when feeding but none do to the extent that the Black and White does. When feeding it spends most of its time creeping head first up and down the trunks and larger branches of trees looking for insects. Its colour patterns are such that, once seen, the bird cannot be mistaken for anything else. No other bird is striped in such bold contrasting black and white stripes running the full length of its body. The males and females are very similar with the male having more black on the face. The Black-throated Grey and Black Polled Warblers look somewhat similar but are not nearly as "stripy".
     I have taken pictures of the Black and White Warbler in our backyard but they did not turnout well so I could not use them. However, I did manage to get a good shot of a female taking a bath in a water feature in Texas and this is the one that is included with this article. With any luck this bird might show up in somebody's backyard this spring.  I finally got a good shot of a male, and, in our backyard.

Foam Lake Birding No. 113






FOAM LAKE BIRDING




No. 113




Our feeders had been busy until a Northern Shrike showed up in our backyard on at least two different days (the times that we saw it). On its second visit the shrike managed to surprise a male House Sparrow at the sunflower feeder. We thought the sparrow was doomed but it was smart enough to realize that flight was too dangerous so it just stayed absolutely motionless until the shrike left. For about fifteen minutes or so we watched the shrike looking for something to eat and, only three or four metres away, the sparrow trying to look invisible. Fortunately for the sparrow it blended in with the feeder so well that the shrike did not notice it. The shrike then flew off to our neighbour's place, probably to visit her feeders, while the sparrow made a quick getaway.




Seeing the shrike reminded me of another similarly coloured, but unrelated, bird of the Rocky Mountains - the Clark's Nutcracker. Like the Northern Shrike the robin sized Clark's Nutcracker is a grey bird with black wings and tail marked with white. The markings are slightly different but the easiest way to tell them apart is by the facial markings. The shrike has a racoon-like black mask while the nutcracker has a plain grey face. Other than colouration the birds are completely different. For starters, the nutcracker belongs to the corvid (crow) family while the shrike is in a family of its own (see Article No. 26). Like all corvids the Clark's Nutcracker likes to scavenge and benefits from human presence.




There are many people from around here who, from time to time, visit the Rocky Mountains, especially Banff and Jasper Parks. In these places the Clark's Nutcracker is plentiful, tame and always on the lookout for some tasty morsel that may be offered or carelessly dropped.




Its primary food sources are the seeds of pine trees with Pinyon Pine (yes, the expensive stuff that we buy in stores) being especially favoured. If there is a shortage of pine seeds (pine nuts) the nutcracker, like its cousin the Blue Jay, chisels away with its bill at hazel nuts exposing the meat inside which it then eats. In the fall the nutcracker carries seeds in its cheek pouches and stores them in many different places to be used over winter when food is scarce. It stores far more than it needs thus allowing for losses to theft by other animals and to simple forgetfulness. The latter gives rise to new trees sprouting.




Its method of eating nuts gave it the name of nutcracker. Since there is only one nutcracker in North America this one word name should have sufficed, but a first name of "Clark's" was added in honour of William Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition that took place in the US in the early 1850s. Sometimes locals refer to it as Clark's Crow.




This week's picture was taken at Banff National Park in the summer of 2009. Since Cark's Nutcrackers are not migratory they can be seen any time of the year although they do drop to lower elevations for the winter. For anybody who has been to Europe Clark's Nutcrackers are very similar in many respects to the all-black Jackdaws seen in city parks there.




We received a call that a Great Horned Owl had landed on the roof of the hotel down town, unfortunately, before we got there it had taken off. Who knows, maybe there will be a next time.