February 26th – Spring?

Still just February but the Farm’s pond is wide open – and sported 4 Wood Ducks: 1 female and 3 males!! -DOL

What a beautiful day! Blue skies, light winds, temperature climbing to 9 C. It pulled me out of my lethargy and pushed me outside to look for signs of Spring. They were abundant (over and above the temperature). There’s a nice loop trail in Cayuga: the Grand Vista Trail. You park behind the courthouse, the trail runs down from the lot and crosses the Grand River along a wonderful bridge, offering wonderful views up and down the river – NO ice by the way. Half way across I heard the soft bugling of Tundra Swans and looked up to find a flock of 10 winging their way WSW, heading for the St. Clair marshes(?). Northern Cardinals were singing from multiple perches and a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds went by (heading NE) eschewing their compatriots on the ground that were already busy staking out territories. [The trail continues on the other side of the bridge winding around and down into Cayuga and then back to the start; a distance of 3 kilometers. A walk I would highly recommend.]

Skunk Cabbage emerging in the Farm’s wetland. -DOL

Then it was on to the Farm for some Spring Cleaning. I was surprised that the pond was completely ice free and was being checked out by a pair of Canada Geese (probably potential nesters), 5 Mallards, and 4 Wood Ducks(!). Seems awfully early for Wood Ducks……Spring?

I’ve been trying to declutter the banding hut and give it a bit of a cleaning/sweep. I built a bit of a fire pit out to the side – looking forward to weenie roasts on nights I sleep over or a warming fire on early May evenings when I’m looking for Whip-poor-wills….or both. I also made a round of all the swallow/bluebird nest boxes and cleaned them out – my condolences to the few mice I ended up displacing. We’ve got about 16 boxes on the go, so lots of nesting options for them. Next time I’ll have to lug around a big pail of grease for the poles to try and deter predators (thanks Duncan for the lubricant).

The Grand River is wide open and ice free with water levels more reminiscent of late Spring. -DOL

Along the river bank I came upon a number of trees (Black Walnuts) that have recently been harvested by some industrious and enterprising beavers. I searched for a den but couldn’t find it. I wish they would take down the walnuts on the prairie side of the pond – it would save us a lot of work. And if only they had a hankering for buckthorn….

Wanton killing. What was the point!? -DOL

When I was approaching the river several large flocks of Canada Geese flew over, most high up. But a pair cruised by low. Out of the blue I heard 5 shotgun shots ring out and watched as one of the birds wheeled and dropped into the river. I was still about 100 m away and as I approached I watched the downed bird’s mate circle, calling and calling. Just before I reached the bank a speed boat made off upstream before I could catch a glimpse. The occupant(s) hadn’t bothered to get the dead bird, just left it. What was the point of this senseless act. I could see it if the shooter meant to eat it, but, obviously, that wasn’t the intent. The bird was just something to shoot. I don’t get it, I really don’t. [Also, is there a hunting season going on right now?]

Downy Woodpeckers don’t like change. -LAM

Some of you will remember Loretta Mousseau. For a good number of years she banded with me and then decided she would take up grandmothering – at which, it seems, she is really good with 7(!) on the go. She and her husband Pat have a place about 2 km outside of York that they are managing for birds, and other wildlife. Loretta runs a number of nest boxes and has a small population of Purple Martins in the Spring/Summer. (If you get a chance, get her to describe how to feed mealworms to martins during dangerous unseasonable cold snaps using plastic spoons to shoot them into the air – it works!!) Anyway…..she had read somewhere that if you invert the front plate of a nesting box for the winter season it helps roosting birds keep heat in (heat rises…remember). Well, it seems that a Downy Woodpecker was having none of it. There’s only one way to enter a nesting/sheltering cavity and that’s from the top. Thinking about it, I could see how it would be much more difficult for the woodpecker to squeeze into the bottom hole and then go UP to find a roosting spot. So much for theory….

January 22nd – A Different Feel

The beauty of early morning bunting banding. Try to imagine distant excited “sheep” notes as the birds see that breakfast is on the way. -DOL

We’ve had a busy two days. Lots of birds checking out the traps, some feeding, others moving on – maybe returning, maybe just heading on. I would love to be able to follow the various flocks that show up and then disperse. Some I know fly out into the surrounding field and sit before returning for another feed. Others head off in a direction and there’s no sign that they return – but maybe they do later via a more circuitous route. Maybe some of the birds that show up at 11 are the same ones that were here at 7:30 and are just returning.

Yesterday I felt that I was seeing many of the same birds throughout the day. There was always a large group sitting out in the winter wheat while others fed and then they’d change places. But most of the time they were in view and going back and forth between the same venues. But today felt different. I sensed that birds were on the move. For example, when I arrived at first light I was met by a flock of 80+ Snow Buntings. They swirled several times around the trap area and then took off into the west. And for awhile there were no birds to be seen. Then they (I think it was the same group?) returned but they were very “flighty” taking off with the noise of each passing car. (This lead me to believe that they were “new” birds as “locals” aren’t deterred by passing vehicles.)

At 8:15 a group of 125+ arrived. They dispersed quickly when an American Kestrel flew in to see what all the activity was about but returned quickly for awhile when the threat had passed. An hour later a large flock of 200+ birds dropped in from the east. They spent only a few minutes around the traps and then continued on to the west.

And this is the way it went all morning. Birds moving in, moving out, leaving enough of their brethren in the traps for me to get a sample. But it felt like these birds were on the move. Coulf it br a response to the coming change in the weather? Sort of a repositioning effort? If it is, the question is: where are they repositioning to? What are they expecting? How do they know? So many questions, so little time.

January 21; Banded 89:
9 Horned Larks
75 Snow Buntings
5 Lapland Longspurs
[Marnie, on Irish Line, banded 121 Snow Buntings on her first day of banding!]

January 22; Banded 85:
13 horned Larks
68 Snow Buntings
4 Lapland Longspurs
[Marnie, on Irish Line – the same one as above – reported that there were 100’s at her site this morning. But, alas, she had to go to work. I tried to stress with her that you get only so many migrations and that maybe work wasn’t that important. She countered with something petty about bills that needed to be paid….]

And as an afterthought: Amy Thorne has now taken over 1st place in the carrot cake muffin with icing competition.

January 20th – That Magic Moment

Lise in Lanark sent me this lovely picture of a male Snow Bunting in flight. -NB

The night was easing into the gray of dawn when I pulled into the parking area at my banding site by the York Airport. When I got out of my car to lay and bait the traps, I didn’t hear a sound…at first. And then, there it was, the alarm call of a distant Snow Bunting. Magic. I scanned the field but couldn’t see a bird but a bird obviously could see me. The call was repeated by another from a different spot, and then another and another. And then there was a mixed flock of over 100 Snow Buntings and Horned Larks racing for the bait spot. They circled as I put down the cut corn and then surrounded the traps as soon as I turned to head back to the car. They were hungry, ravenous. And no wonder…they’d just spent a long night in -17 degree weather. They were ready for breakfast.

Birds just kept pouring in all morning. The traps would fill; we (Liam, Sam, Ben, Jennifer, and I) would clear them, and no sooner would we start banding in the car then the traps would fill again. The only times there were slowdowns was when Northern Harriers decided to see what all the hubbub was about and dropped by and when a distant Merlin sped by. We thought it might make a pass but it hadn’t seen the feeding frenzy and just kept on going.

Lapland Longspur. -SHL

I pulled the traps around 12:30 and, before leaving, restocked the corn piles so that any birds that wanted/needed to eat could and to reinforce that this was a good place to be – so that tomorrow morning we can do it all over again.
Banded 140:
20 horned Larks
116 Snow Buntings
4 Lapland Longspurs

Wing detail of an “older”, After Second Year male Snow Bunting. -SHL

And there were more than these Arctic-nesting birds around. Other noteworthy species that we encountered: Bald Eagle, 2+ Northern Harriers, Merlin, Common Raven.

January 18th – Busy Morning

It was great to have some young knees working the traps: Sarah (left) and Liam (right). -DOL

We had a big day this morning. I had been expecting it as yesterday, when I touched up the bait piles early at 7:30, there was a mixed flock of around 300 Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, and Lapland Longspurs waiting for me. They had finished yesterdays offerings and were patiently waiting for more. They descended on the cut corn as soon as I turned to go back to the car. But….I wasn’t able to band due to appointments in the city. Late in the afternoon, upon my return, the morning corn was gone so I put out more. But the cold has been making these birds ravenous.

It was the same this morning – a large flock waiting to be fed. Only this time I was able to stick around and set out traps. Thankfully I was joined by Sarah and Liam. They did all the banding while I scribed. They also did most of the trap extractions which made things much easier on my knees. We had a bumper day, banding a total of 125 birds: 35 Horned Larks, 74 Snow buntings, 15 Lapland Longspurs….and 1 Northern Shrike. This gives us a total of 78 Snow Buntings, which is more than we banded in all of last year’s disastrous mild, 75-bunting season.

The young Northern Shrike – a very effective predator. -LET

For most of the morning there were at least 200 birds hanging around. Whenever we went out to clear the traps they would fly up and land about 100 m. back in the winter wheat field. But as soon as we returned to the car they were right back to the corn. That is until a juvenile Northern Shrike showed up. It flew in surreptitiously and we weren’t aware of it’s presence until we noticed the panic in the traps. When Liam sprang from the car the shrike was outside the trap but by the time he quickly covered the 20 m. to the traps it was inside and managed to kill one bunting before he could grab it. It was amazing how quickly the bird solved the puzzle of how to get into the trap – if only buntings were as fast. The shrike put a damper on feeding, so after half an hour without many birds even in the area, we called it a day. But it was a good one!

Male Horned Lark. -SGS

We had an interesting “return” today: a Horned Lark that had been originally been banded here January 30th, 2023 – almost exactly a year ago. I wonder if it played a role in bringing birds to the site…..

This shot of birds in the traps gives you a good idea of how desolate the site is – and yet thebirds have found it in large numbers. -DOL

Wing detail of the juvenile shrike. -LET

Another look at that shrike. -LET

Two of the 15 Lapland Longspurs we banded today. -LET

Male Snow Bunting. Females outnumbered males 3:1 today – the usual split at this southern site. -SGS