Foam Lake Birding No. 133


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


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


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.