Foam Lake Birding No. 165

NO. 165
            This morning the hoar frost laden trees and clear blue skies provided us with some beautiful panoramic scenery.  I was hoping to get one or two male Pine Grosbeaks sitting in one of the trees near our feeders but no such luck.  The contrast among the red, blue and white of the birds, sky and hoar frost respectively would have made a spectacular photo. 
            Anyway, our feeders were very busy despite the absence of the Pine Grosbeaks.  There were: three Red Breasted Nuthatches, four woodpeckers - a pair of Downys and a pair of Hairys, two male House Finches, several Chickadees,  a half dozen or so House Sparrows and about two dozen Redpolls.  Even a Raven was lazily floating overhead.  The Pine Grosbeaks which have been regulars at our feeders the last several weeks never did show up. 
            The robin-sized Pine Grosbeak is one of our most colourful and widespread winter birds.  It is circumpolar in range breeding throughout the Boreal forests in both Eurasia and North America moving farther south in the winter.  The female is essentially a grey bird with some greenish brown on its head and tail.  The male is a striking pinkish red with black wings and tail.  Both sexes have two prominent white wing bars.  For a relatively large bird it has very soft and gentle vocalizations that seem to match perfectly with soft falling snow.  The Pine Grosbeak's vocalizations do not resemble that of any other bird and can be used confidently to identify it.  For the more accomplished birders it bears mentioning that the Pine Grosbeak is not really a grosbeak but our largest finch with a big bill from which it erroneously gets its name.  As a field mark a finch's flight is undulating while that of a grosbeak is in a straight line. 
            Although the Pine Grosbeak does not resemble any other bird it is surprisingly often confused with our Robin.  When I was growing up on the farm every year some neighbour would report seeing a small flock of Robins in late February or early March.  I am almost certain that the bird in question was the grosbeak and not a Robin.  To non birders a Robin-sized bird with some red on it could easily be taken for a Robin.  Quite recently I have had people tell me that they used to see "Winter Robins" although such a bird does not exist.  Once again I am quite certain that the bird being referred to is actually the Pine Grosbeak.  But then again, I have never seen Robins in winter nor have I ever been with anybody when they saw Robins in the winter so I cannot confirm my suspicions. 
            Now that Christmas season is upon us I will not be submitting anymore birding articles until the middle of January or so.  So, for the final pictures of this year a red bird with a white snowy background seems appropriate.  Down east the Cardinal is the preferred bird but since we do not have Cardinals here a Pine Grosbeak will do just fine.  This week's pictures were taken several weeks ago in our backyard.  The two male and female Pine Grosbeaks were feeding on Black Oil seed that had been spilled from a hanging feeder to the ground below while another lone male and female were in a tree checking things out below.   

Foam Lake Birding No. 164

No. 164
            This week I had a call from a fellow birder asking me if I had been involved in observing and identifying  an Hepatic Tanager this past summer near Prince Albert.  This particular tanager is an uncommon summer resident of the pine forests in the mountains of Arizona and adjacent areas let alone Canada.  This sighting near Prince Albert is only the second in Canada and the first in Saskatchewan.  I informed my friend that I had not seen the Saskatchewan bird but that I had seen an Hepatic Tanager in the Madeira Mountains of southern Arizona. 
            Meanwhile reports have come to my attention of other rare or uncommon bird sightings in our area.  A Black Headed Grosbeak was seen in the Yorkton area this past summer.  I have seen quite a few of them in the US but my most memorable sighting was of a spring male singing away in the poplar tree in our backyard.  Its song is a mellow version of the Robin's.  Another bird sighting of interest was of a pair of Barred Owls in the Madge Lake Area.  These eastern forest owls have slowly spread westward along the Boreal Forest and similarly treed areas farther south.  The last of the rare birds that has been brought to my attention is the Rosy Finch.  The sparrow-sized Rosy Finch is a bird of the Rocky Mountains where it lives and breeds along the snow line in the summer.  Occasionally during extremely harsh winters they will spread out over the plains usually in close proximity to the US/Canada border.  In Saskatchewan they are most commonly seen in the Cypress Hills region but, recently one was seen in the Yorkton area.  I have been fortunate enough to see them in both Banff and Jasper National Parks but not locally.  A word of caution when identifying rare birds.  Make sure that you have a good quality bird book, a knowledgeable witness and, if possible, good quality pictures.  Wishing to see a rarity often creates an exotic bird out of a common one. 
            Recently, I have had several local people tell me that they never realized that nuthatches lived around here and that they did not know what nuthatches looked like.  There are two species of nuthatches around here, the Red Breasted and the White Breasted.  Both birds have the unique habit of feeding upside down as it were.  Their feet are designed to allow the nuthatch to climb down trees head first and when they come to feeders they tend do the same.  The more common one is the Red Breasted.  We have a pair regularly at our feeders and I am sure that other yards with feeders have them too.  Although common in towns in the winter they disperse into rural areas during the summer for breeding. 
            Both birds somewhat resemble chickadees with the Red Breasted a little more so and an inexperienced birder would probably identify it as a chickadee.  The easiest way to identify nuthatches is by their unique feeding habits.  A second characteristic is the flight pattern.  Most birds fly directly from one point to another but not the nuthatch.  It often takes off in one direction only to change direction several times in mid flight.  It reminds me of the flight pattern of a butterfly.  As far as field marks go it is the easiest to consult a bird book.  In size the Red Breasted compares to a chickadee while the White Breasted compares to a sparrow. 
            This week I have included pictures of both nuthatches.  The picture of a Red Breasted Nuthatch sitting in a tree was taken two weeks ago while the picture of a White Breasted Nuthatch feeding was taken two years ago.  Both were taken in our backyard. 

Foam Lake Birding No. 163

No. 163
            I just got a phone call from Weslaco, TX where we have spent the last six winters.  At 10:30 AM the temperature there was 24C compared to the -18C it was here at the same time.  I have to admit to being a little envious.  Not only did I miss the nice temperatures but I also missed the local birds that go with it.  Oh well, maybe next year. 
            Texas birds notwithstanding, we do have quite a nice variety of birds here even in the winter time that are every bit as colourful and enjoyable as the more southern ones.  This year we have had quite a wide variety of regulars as mentioned in previous articles.  Our most recent arrivals, an irruptive (visits sporadically) species, have been the Redpolls that some winters do not show up at all.  Usually when we have Redpolls at our feeders we have about two dozen birds or so; this year only six or seven show up.  Maybe more will come as the winter progresses.  As always they prefer Canola seed something that other birds avoid.  The upside to eating Canola is that the smallish Redpolls do not have to compete with larger birds for food.  There is a definite "pecking order" among birds that in human terms we would label as "bullying". 
            All irruptive birds are not irruptive to the same degree.  Some like the Evening Grosbeak appear once in several years or even decades; others like the Bohemian Waxwing appear several times in a winter.  Most irruptive species like the Redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks often become regulars at our feeders if everything is to their liking.  Others like the Bohemian Waxwings never become regulars.    The only hope is to have some fruit trees with fruit still hanging on over winter to attract them from time to time.  A side benefit is that an occasional summer resident that stays here for the winter instead of migrating south has something to eat.  We have had Robins well into November this year feeding on the fruit of ornamental crab apples. 
            One of the most popular trees for irruptive fruit eating birds is the Mountain Ash or its very similar European cousin the Rowan Tree.  In most years both produce massive amounts of bright red edible berries that birds seem "to die for".  The only noticeable difference between the two trees is that the Ash grow to about 5 - 6 metres while the Rowan Tree grows to about twice that.  I have seen both species in Foam Lake. 
            This week's picture is of a flock of Bohemian Waxwings taking a break between feeding sessions at our neighbour's Mountain Ash trees.  They were sitting in our Poplar Tree like little soldiers all at the same angle facing in the same direction except for the odd nonconformist.  A flock of Bohemian Waxwings can be safely identified by the way the flock lands and sits in a tree.  This week's picture is of a flock of Bohemian Waxwings in a Poplar in our backyard.