Foam Lake Birding No. 181

No. 181
            Fall migratory bird hunting season opened on September 1 and at daybreak and sunset gunfire is frequently heard.  Although a number of different birds may be legally hunted, including Coots, Sandhill Cranes, Wilson's Snipe and about fifteen species of ducks, by far the most popular is the goose. 
            There are only four species of geese that can be expected locally - Canada (now split into two species the Canada and Cackling), Snow and White Fronted.  A fifth specie, the uncommon Ross's Goose, is found in mixed flocks of Snow Geese and is so similar to them that great care must b taken in identifying it.  Like the Snow Goose the White Fronted is circumpolar in distribution. 
            Historically, the White Fronted used to be the most prized game bird of hunters.  Heavy hunting eventually forced governments to impose and then reduce bag limits for hunters in order to keep populations viable.  However, an unexpected turn of events reversed the fortunes of the White Fronted Goose.  The populations of both the Snow and Canada Geese literally exploded causing governments to raise the bag limits on both species beyond that of the White Fronted Goose.  With hunting pressure diverted to the other very numerous species the White Fronted has had time to recover and maintain its numbers. 
            The White Fronted is between the Snow and Canada Goose in size and is often referred to as medium sized.  In flight the White Fronted makes a kind of musical laughing sound that, once heard, is quite recognizable.  Oftentimes they will be found with other geese when feeding or roosting for the night but unlike the Ross's and Snow they do not mingle.  A field might contain all three species but the Snows will be in one group, the Canadas in another part and the White Fronted off to one side feeding by themselves.  In such circumstances the Snows and Canadas are easy to identify and what is left over is the White Fronted.  If observing a field of geese look for a small group of dark grey-brown geese with no obvious field marks.  With binoculars the white patch above the bill, from where the goose gets its name, is clearly visible.  Another good field mark, if the goose is not in a stubble field, is the orange feet.  It is our only wild goose to have orange feet.  Snow Geese have pink feet and the Canadas have black feet.  Like all geese males and females are the same. 
            This week's pictures of the White Fronted Geese, sometimes called ”Speckled Bellies" by hunters, were taken along the Margo grid.  The field was filled with all three (possibly five) species but the nearest to the road were the White Fronted.  My wife was excited because seeing a White Fronted Goose was a lifer for her.  The geese were a little wary of us and kept walking away while keeping a watchful eye out for us.  I did manage to get some decent shots and the white nose patch is clearly visible but the feet are buried in stubble.  Canada Geese are in the background.

Foam Lake Birding No. 180

No. 180
            The swarms of warblers are considerably reduced but berry eating flickers have gone from one male to at least three.  The Tree Swallows and Purple Martins have been long gone but the Barn Swallows still linger.  An interesting note is that there were actually two Barn Swallows' nest on our neighbour's house and not one as previously reported.  There was one on the north peak as well as the south.  We also spotted Ruby Crowned Kinglets and Least Flycatchers in our yard.  Both are local nesters but, like Downey and Hairy Woodpeckers, tend not to show up in our yards during breeding season.   Unlike the woodpeckers they do migrate. 
            While driving down rural roads I noticed an influx of cormorants around various deeper bodies of water especially dugouts.  When stocked with fish dugouts were especially favoured by cormorants for the easy pickings.  Even people in cities with larger yards that had outdoor goldfish ponds were paid visits by the cormorants.  This did not endear them to the people directly affected. 
            As a group cormorants have been reclassified at least three times and taxonomists still are unsure where to place them and so the debate continues.  Eventually DNA testing will probably resolve the issue.  Since ancient times until the seventeenth century it was believed they were related to the crow family and several European countries referred to cormorants as "sea ravens".  In fact the name cormorant might be a contraction from the Latin "corvus marinus" which means sea raven.  In any case a cormorant especially in flight looks remarkably like a crow except for the longish neck and faster wing beat. 
            Except for the Double Crested all cormorants are coastal birds that feed strictly on fish that they catch by diving from the shallows to more than 45 metres deep.  In the past peoples in parts of Asia and the Mediterranean tamed and trained cormorants to fish in much the same way falcons were utilized to catch birds and small mammals.  A ring was put around the cormorant's neck restricting the size of the fish it could swallow.  A small fish would be eaten but a large one would get stuck in the throat and the cormorant would have to get its master to help getting the fish out which the fisherman kept for himself.  It was hoped that the cormorant would catch enough fish for the fisherman before it was full itself and lost interest in fishing.  Fishing with cormorants is still practised in some parts of Asia today. 
            The only cormorant to be found on fresh water is the Double Crested so named because of small tufts of feathers that appear on either side of the head during breeding season which are seldom visible even during breeding season.  (Cormorants with long feathers on their heads are often called 'shags").  One characteristic of the cormorants shared with only one other bird, the Anhinga, is its habit of drying itself out after a swim.   The bird climbs onto a rock or snag near or in the water, faces the sun, and spreads out its wings to expose a greater area and to dry out and warm up more quickly.  This pose reminded early Christians of the cross so the bird was given special status and appeared on the coats of arms of several European countries. 
            This week's picture is of two Double Crested Cormorants perched on rocks at an abandoned water filled gravel pit near Tuffnell.  One of the birds is in typical cormorant pose sunning itself. 

Foam Lake Birding No. 179

No. 179
            With a mild fall predicted by Environment Canada harvest should be above average in all respects.  No matter which road or highway one takes in rural Saskatchewan harvest machinery is in operation everywhere.  May it continue. 
            The trees and shrubs in our yard are "crawling" with migratory birds.  This list includes all the birds mentioned in last week's article and the addition of Red Eyed Vireos, Black and White Warblers and White Throated Sparrows.  White Throats are very common in the fall but they tend to stay away from towns and spend most of their time in tall grasses and shrubs along road sides and dried out sloughs.  As a youngster I always wondered what birds were making those distinct insect-like chirps which were really noticeable in the evening after the sun set and the winds had died down.  It was not until many years later when I started to do a lot of duck hunting in the late evenings did I finally learn what they were.  Hunting usually involves a lot of waiting with intermittent and brief action and, I probably spent more time looking at various small birds feeding than I did for the ducks I was supposed to be shooting.  Anyway, it was here that I actually observed the various sparrows feeding and communicating with each other that I made my discovery of the mystery birds. 
            Both last week and this week I have mentioned vireos so, perhaps, a little more discussion is in order.  As a group vireos are drab greenish small birds that behave and look like fall warblers.  Most of the field marks used to distinguish species are quite subtle and even their songs are remarkably similar save for the Warbling Vireo.  Their songs are rather husky and of a robin-like quality except with more abrupt phrasing making them less musical.  They are insect eaters but do like fruit which is probably why they are in the chokecherry bushes.  Unlike warblers where spring males are usually dramatically different from the females vireo males and females are alike.  Like the Wood Warblers they are strictly a new world group of birds unrelated to each other.  The Wood Warblers are related to the sparrows while the vireos are related to, of all things, the crow family. 
            Four species of vireos occur locally-the Red Eyed, Warbling, Blue Headed and Philadelphia.  Of the four the first two listed also nest locally but usually in rural areas rather than towns and cities.  The other two nest further north in and near the Boreal forest passing through here in the spring and fall. 
            The Blue Headed Vireo has only recently been listed as a distinct species.  Prior to this it was known as the Solitary Vireo and most bird books have it named as such.  The Solitary Vireo is now three species-the Blue Headed, Cassins and Plumbeous.  All three are very similar to one another and can be safely identified by range.  However, the Cassins and Plumbeous do coexist on their wintering grounds in southern Arizona.  In fact we saw both the Cassins and Plumbeous on one guided field trip there in 2008.  Actually we had gone on this excursion to see Trogons which we never did see but seeing the two vireos was a fair trade.  The Blue Headed is the only one of the three to be seen here and is relatively easy to identify by its pronounced eye ring leading to the beak making it look as if it is wearing spectacles.  The name, Blue Headed, is a bit of a misnomer as the head is essentially a dark gray. 
            This week's picture was taken several years ago on its wintering grounds in southern Texas.  In Latin the word vireo is a phrase meaning, "I am green".  That folks just about says it all.

Foam Lake Birding No. 178

No. 178
            Although we are experiencing our longest lasting heat wave this year there are sure signs that fall is underway.  Some trees are starting to shed their leaves and the goldenrod and fall asters are in full bloom.  I always have mixed feelings at this time of year.  Seeing crops being swathed brings back memories of the feelings of excitement at the thought of being rewarded for a hard summer's work.  However, with a new school year just around the corner the excitement was somewhat muted.  Not only did we have to attend school each and every day but upon getting home we had to unload the grain trucks and trailers that had been filled during the day.  As there were no hydraulics this meant a lot of hard shoveling.  Still, it was a fun time and the closest I come to it now is the picking of cherries and apples in our yard.  Not quite the same thing. 
            On the birding front geese are starting to flock and many of the fall warblers that have nested in the Boreal Forest are in town.  As of this writing I have seen the Palm, Tennessee, Orange Crowned, Yellow Rumped (Myrtle), Wilson's and Blackpoll Warblers.  Although the males are quite distinct and easy to identify in the spring they moult into very drab colours for the winter and look much like the females.  Even the differences between species is not very significant.  For those birders who like challenges identifying fall warblers will provide just that.  Binoculars, bird books and sharp eyes are essential. 
            We did have the pleasant surprise of seeing a Blue Headed Vireo in our chokecherries picking at gnats.  The bird is not a rarity by any means but it is uncommon especially in town and can be seen only in the spring and fall.  One day our feeder was visited by a mother House Finch with her four youngsters.  Now House Finches are common but evidence of them nesting locally is a first for me.  Our fall flowers have attracted juvenile Ruby Throated Hummingbirds that are preparing themselves for their winter migration to Central America.  This year they seem to be more numerous than usual and frequently there are two or three birds at the flowers at any one time.  Nice. 
            This week's photo is of an unexpected event - at least for me.  We have one male Flicker that actually eats chokecherries.  I managed to get a good shot of him feasting on said chokecherries. 

Foam Lake Birding No. 177

No. 177
            Our flower beds are in full bloom and with that an accompanying increase of flower loving wildlife like butterflies, bees and of course one of nature's wonders, the hummingbirds. 
            Different orders of birds differ significantly from other orders of birds ("order" is the first classification of birds into different groups).  For example, ducks and geese, although different, are similar enough to belong to the same order. The same goes for the robin and raven.  On the other hand, ducks and robins are in different orders.  However, when it comes to being different the hummingbirds "take the cake" as it were.  Here are some of their unique characteristics:
                            1). As a group they are the smallest birds in the world.  The smallest is the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba; the largest is the robin-sized Giant Hummingbird of South America. 
                            2). The wing structure is modified allowing for much greater rotation at the shoulder giving the hummer greater manoeuvrability in flight and the wrist joint is fused for greater stability at high rpm.
                             3). They have oversized breast muscles capable of driving the wings up to 80 flaps per second.  These last two characteristics allow the hummer to fly backwards, sideways, straight up and down, hover and even fly upside down.  No other bird can do this.  By comparison a crow flaps its wings about 4 times a second; a House Sparrow about 10 and all have to be moving forward to stay aloft.  The rapid wing beat produces a humming sound from which the birds get their name of "hummingbirds".   
                            4). Flying takes a lot of energy and the hummers need it in spades.  In fact most "normal" bird foods would not provide sufficient energy quickly enough to keep a hummer going and the only naturally ready source of such energy is the sugar in the nectar of flowers.  (Yes, flower nectar has the very same sugar that is found in your sugar bowl).  They consume at least their body weight in sugar daily ("treats" would not be a health concern) and augment their diets with small insects for protein.  This very high rate of energy consumption has another serious drawback - the hummer has to feed constantly to survive.  However, like all birds and animals it, also, has to sleep which it does at night but to go that long without food the hummer could starve by morning.  To avoid starving the hummer goes into a kind of overnight hibernation called "torpor" where the heartbeat drops from several hundred to about 30 resulting in very little energy demand.  In the morning, with its energy load intact, the hummer takes a few minutes to "wake" up then carries on with its daily activities. 
                            5). Without getting into too much scientific detail different colour is simply light with different frequencies (red being the lowest frequency and violet the highest).   Using voice as an analogy: red would be base and violet would be soprano.  Most of the colour that we see is caused by reflection.  For example, a green tree absorbs all frequencies except green which it reflects and we sense it with our eyes as green (assuming no colour blindness).  This reflective material is known as pigment.  Like most birds hummers have pigment but they also have prismatic cells in some of their feathers especially the throat area (referred to as gorgets) that break up light (refract) into the various colours the same way that crystal chandeliers do.  The effect is that the bird glows or looks iridescent.  Thus the gorget of the male hummer usually looks all black because it does not carry any pigment and therefore does not reflect any light but, when he decides to "impress the ladies" he knows the exact angle to turn his head and body so as catch good sunlight and refract whatever colour he has been endowed with (usually red).  The females seem to approve. 
            There are 320 different species of hummingbirds in the world and all are in the Americas with about 15 or so showing up in the US (mostly in Arizona), 5 in Canada and 2 in Saskatchewan.  The common one around here is the Ruby Throated with the odd stray Rufous.  The male Rufous is almost all copper coloured and in good sunlight shines like a newly minted copper penny. It is very common in  the Rocky Mountains  In flight the wings make a high pitched metallic whine and several males at a feeder is quite spectacular. 
            Male hummers are more brightly coloured than the females which do not have prismatic gorgets.  Like egrets and swallows hummers were also hunted for their feathers for the fashion industry just over a century ago.  Because of the prismatic nature of  a hummer's feathers they were utilized more like jewellery.  The more colourful the bird the greater the demand and the higher the price.    
                                    Most birds raise their young as a couple with both parents actively involved in rearing them.  One notable exception is the duck family where the hen has the sole responsibility to raise the young.  Well, in that regard the female hummer is like a hen duck - she raises the young all by herself.  The male joins other males in a kind of bachelor group and spends the summer further north.  That is why males are seldom seen around town much beyond mid summer. 
            This week's  pictures were taken in our backyard a few years ago.  The male is at the feeder; the female is at the Kent Bells.  The male's gorget appears black but the back feathers are an iridescent green.  This is the one big advantage of the digital camera - it captures the iridescence of the bird that a film camera never could.   To really appreciate the iridescence log on to my website