Foam Lake Birding No. 126


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


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


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.