Foam Lake Birding No. 135

                                                                         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


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.